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Marine recruits helping provide insight into COVID-19

Some recruits stepping onto the iconic yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island are taking part in a study that could have a nationwide impact.

The study is delving into why some people infected with COVID-19 have no symptoms and others get very sick. Those who have no symptoms are described as “asymptomatic”, and it’s believed they can still spread the virus.

All new recruits are given the opportunity to volunteer to be part of the research, regardless if they test positive for COVID-19. Researchers are identifying those recruits who are infected with COVID-19, even if they have few or no symptoms. They’re also measuring weekly antibody production for those with more severe symptoms. The presence of antibodies indicates a past infection of the virus, and those antibodies may provide future immunity.

Navy researchers conducting the study at Parris Island are also looking to identify an “immunity passport” in those who have had the virus — a measurable indicator that can be calculated “in order to safely return recruits and Marines back to the fight even if they are re-exposed to the infection,” according to the Naval Medical Research Center, which is conducting the study.

Defense officials don’t have data on what the asymptomatic infection rate is among troops across the board, said Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, during a Defense Writers Group press call. But he cited this research project at Parris Island, and others that will help provide insight, such as the recently released data on the asymptomatic rates of infection among sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.

Researchers from the Navy and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one out of every five sailors aboard the Roosevelt who tested posted for COVID-19 antibodies never showed any symptoms.

More than 1,000 people have volunteered to date to participate in the research at Parris Island, said Regena Kowitz, spokeswoman for Naval Medical Forces Pacific. The study is being conducted by researchers at Naval Medical Research Center.

All new recruits are tested for COVID-19, and all are given the opportunity to volunteer for the study, not just those who test positive for COVID-19. Some permanent party members of the staff are also participating. Anyone who tests positive is isolated and cared for —even if they have no symptoms —until it’s determined they can return to duty.

The researchers are currently analyzing data they’ve collected, but haven’t finalized any results at this time, Kowitz said. The study began May 4.

The research at Parris Island is part of an effort to help decrease the spread of COVID-19 at the recruit depot and get recruits back to training as quickly and safely as possible.

The research team collects blood, saliva and nasal samples of participants who volunteer, to learn more about the virus’ epidemiology, Kowitz said.

They’re working to gain an understanding of how the body fights the virus. Researchers are hoping to identify an “immunity passport” in troops that can be used to determine when it’s safe for them to return to duty, even if they are re-exposed to the infection.

Examining characteristics of asymptomatic recruits, the research should also provide a better understanding of the basic immune response of the body in different people to assess why some individuals get very sick while others do not realize they are infected.

Findings will help Navy and Marine Corps officials in making public health decisions in order to avoid or minimize future outbreaks, Kowitz said.

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