The merits of a COVID-19 antibody testing study being conducted by a Stanford University research team have been called into question after the wife of one of the professors working on the study emailed the parents of more than 650 Egan Junior High School students, urging parents to take the test.
The online news outlet BuzzFeed obtained the controversial April 2 email and initially broke the story last week. It reported that Catherine Su, a radiation oncologist, copied all on a Yahoo email list of Egan parents to invite one member per household to participate in an “FDA-approved” antibody test for the novel coronavirus. Su is affiliated with Regional Medical Center in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, according to the hospital websites. Her husband, Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya, led the antibody study.
In the email, Su speaks as a member of the team, though she is not listed on the original medical preprint – a short review of a study that introduces it before the peer-reviewed journal is published – for the study.
“To test the prevalence of disease in our county, we need 2,500 residents,” Su told parents. “The serum antibody test determines whether your immune system has fought off the virus and created antibodies to protect you from future exposure.”
Perhaps most controversial, and what the BuzzFeed story highlighted, was that Su also encouraged those who believed they were immune to stop sheltering in place and return to their routines.
Egan Principal Keith Rocha said he was unaware of the study and why parents were surveyed. Rocha declined to confirm whether Su or Bhattacharya were Egan parents themselves. Multiple sources confirm they live in Los Altos with their children.
The antibody test study, conducted April 3 and 4, included approximately 3,300 participants, according to the preprint. A team of 17 Stanford professors claim they solely recruited candidates for the testing through Facebook ads aimed at “a sample of individuals living within the county by demographic and geographic characteristics.”
“The email you reference was shared without the prior knowledge or approval of any of the study investigators and does not reflect the study purpose,” Bhattacharya said in an email to the Town Crier. “We did not approve any recruitment material beyond what was in our original protocol.”
The conclusion drawn from Bhattacharya’s study is similar to others conducted: Far more people are infected with COVID-19 in Santa Clara County than previously figured. The team’s findings imply that between 48,000 and 81,000 residents had contracted the virus by early April, a far cry from the estimated 1,000 confirmed cases at the time the data was gathered.
Several researchers took to social media to criticize the claim numbers could be as high as 85 times more than reported. A primary flaw is possible selection bias. Su’s email to Egan parents specifically requested “healthy” individuals participate. In addition, drawing an excessive number of testers from Los Altos, as opposed to other dissimilar communities, also would have tainted results.
Bhattacharya told another publication there was proof this may have happened, noting signups “very strongly suggested this email attracted many people from the wealthier and healthier parts of Santa Clara County.” He said measures were taken to slow the recruitment from those areas and seek those from other towns.
Vetting the process
On a national level, the House Oversight Committee Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy has been working directly with companies manufacturing and distributing antibody tests to investigate how the blood-based tests are regulated. Chairman Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois expressed concerns over the testing in a letter to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Robert Redfield.
“We are already seeing instances where companies are misleadingly marketing serology test kits and implying they can be used to help people find out whether or not they are infected with coronavirus,” Krishnamoorthi said in his letter. “As aggressive as we must be in developing innovative testing solutions to combat the spread of this deadly disease, we must also protect American consumers from needlessly spending their hard-earned money towards ineffective solutions rushed to market with little to no regulatory oversight.”