UF students to participate in landmark COVID-19 study

UF students walking on campus
UF students walking on campus

The University of Florida will attempt to vaccinate more than 1,000 students as part of a landmark national study to determine whether young people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine can still spread the coronavirus.

Two groups of 500 to 700 students each will be given the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The first of those groups will be vaccinated as soon as possible, said Dr. Kartik Cherabuddi, the principal UF investigator, who is an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases and global medicine. Researchers will offer the second group of students the vaccine several months later as part of the study.

“It’s a very important and unanswered question: Can vaccinated college students still spread the COVID-19 virus?” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a co-investigator on the UF portion of the study.

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Clinical trials of the vaccines were designed to assess whether the vaccines prevented the vaccinated person from having symptomatic disease as well as prevent serious illness and death. This study is also expected to shed further light on whether the vaccine prevents people from spreading SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Participants in the Prevent COVID U study will be randomly assigned to one of the two groups. The first group will receive the customary two doses of vaccine and will be followed for a total of four months. The second group will be offered the same study vaccine later and monitored for a few weeks after their second dose of vaccine, which Cherabuddi said will be sufficient time to collect relevant comparative data.

In addition to the students, people who are considered “close contacts” of the study participants have the opportunity to enroll and be monitored in order to track virus spread.

“We expect that vaccinations are decreasing transmission, but we don’t quite know how much or what really is happening among certain groups such as younger people,” Cherabuddi said.

Overall, the study will attempt to enroll about 12,000 students at 22 universities and an additional 25,500 of their close contacts. Other participating sites include Louisiana State, Texas A&M and Northwestern universities. Any UF student between the ages of 18 and 26 who has not had a positive COVID-19 test result and not previously received the vaccine is eligible to enroll.

The ideal study participant would be someone who is committed to contributing to new scientific knowledge about the spread of COVID-19, Cherabuddi said. Study participants will have a mixture of on-campus clinic visits spread over four months to include two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, three blood samples, twice-weekly saliva tests and daily self-collected nasal swabs—from a nostril, not the back of the throat. These tests could reveal whether virus is shed for short periods and how virus variants play a role in vaccine immunity.

While Florida officials decided last week to lower the vaccination eligibility age to 18 on April 5, Cherabuddi said there are still many good reasons for students to participate in the clinical trial. Students who enroll have an opportunity to contribute to science and humanity, he said. Both participants and their close contacts are being compensated for their time, travel and effort.

“This is the best study to date looking at how transmission of the virus happens in vaccinated individuals—especially in a younger population,” Cherabuddi said. “The findings could have wide-ranging impact by providing important scientific information for government leaders and public health experts about transmissibility of the virus after vaccination. It will likely answer the question of how long we should use preventive measures such as masks and social distancing.” 

For more information including study details, eligibility and contact information, visit the Prevent COVID U website.

“We really need and want motivated individuals who can participate in answering these critical questions with implications for science, public health and our path forward to normalcy,” Cherabuddi said. “Go Gators.”

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