Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics are collaborating with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health on a project to examine the use of coronavirus rapid antigen tests among first responders and school-aged children.
The multi-pronged pilot study aims to determine the best methods for using the inexpensive tests with the hope of supporting additional reopening efforts. Rapid tests have the potential to quickly alert people who are contagious and need to isolate, thereby stopping the chain of transmission. Los Angeles is one of the first metropolitan areas in the country to launch a large-scale pilot study of rapid tests in both symptomatic and asymptomatic participants.
“I am grateful for this collaboration between the County and the City, and our partners at USC for these efforts to vastly expand and enhance testing capacity,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “We continue to work together to keep our communities safe and healthy, while gradually moving forward with additional reopenings and in-person learning for our children and youth.”
“Our new rapid tests are cheaper, faster, and more accessible — and they are a potential game changer in our ability to respond to COVID-19, reopen our schools, and get our economy back on-track,” said Mayor Garcetti. “Los Angeles never shies away from a challenge, and we are tapping into our trademark creativity, our innovative spirit, and our strong partners with USC and the County to advance groundbreaking research, prevent the spread of this virus, and save lives.”
The first phase of the project kicked off last week with firefighters at the Los Angeles Fire Department receiving three COVID-19 tests at City testing sites: a self-administered rapid antigen test, a lab-based PCR test, and an antibody test to identify prior infection. The project, which aims to enroll up to 1,000 first responders, will provide insight into how each test performs and how to best administer these tests to essential frontline workers.
PCR tests cost upwards of $100 apiece and can take days to deliver results. Rapid antigen tests can cost as little as $5, deliver results within 15 minutes, can be conducted using a paper strip, and have the potential to be self-administered when paired with a smartphone app that can accurately interpret results.
“Rapid antigen tests have a lot of promise in our path to reopen schools and businesses because they are cheaper and provide quicker results than PCR tests. But, there is a lot we don’t know,” said Neeraj Sood, director of the COVID Initiative at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics and USC lead on the collaboration. “We want to understand whether rapid antigen tests identify infectious and asymptomatic individuals, whether they can be self-administered and how they can be used for screening at schools and workplaces. We are especially excited to be piloting a new rapid antigen test and mobile app that uses computer vision technology to automatically interpret results.” Sood is also a professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy.
The second phase of the project seeks to assess the feasibility, acceptability, and accuracy of repeat rapid antigen testing for screening in school-aged children. Sood, along with USC Keck School of Medicine Professor Jennifer Unger will co-lead this project to determine the best process and strategy to test large numbers of students in institutional settings. Both phases will rely on volunteers as study participants.
“This partnership with USC and the City of Los Angeles is an enormous opportunity to implement cutting edge research that has the potential to transform the way we approach the pandemic and how we can slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Department of Public Health. “Identifying strategies to protect our essential workers and get children back to school safely are among our highest priorities.”
Researchers are looking at the pilot studies, focus groups, and surveys as avenues to tackle a number of challenges, such as establishing the best way to deploy rapid testing; determining how often a person should repeat testing; and identifying the best way to conduct large-scale testing and develop an effective implementation strategy.
The project is a public-private partnership led by the University of Southern California, the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Gauss provided the rapid antigen tests and computer vision app. Cedars-Sinai provided the PCR tests, antibody tests, and lab analysis. Support for the project was provided by the Office of Mayor Garcetti, University of Southern California, Los Angeles Fire Department, Rockefeller Foundation, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other individual donors.
School administrators interested in participating in this study can email COVIDstudy@healthpolicy.usc.edu for more information.