UCI researchers create coronavirus microarray test to determine true prevalence of COVID-19 infection and gauge antibody responses

Just a little pinprick.

For Phil Felgner, director of the Vaccine R&D Center in the UCI School of Medicine’s Institute for Immunology, that’s the key to learning more about how humans respond to the COVID-19 virus, as well as to gaining insight into a possible vaccine and understanding how social distancing and other protective measures are working.

In May, Felgner’s lab began taking blood samples from UCI Medical Center employees and Orange County residents who consented to having their fingers jabbed to see if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

“People want this kind of test,” he says, adding that it’s crucial in determining how widespread SARS-CoV-2 is in the population.

The familiar nasal swabs provide far less accurate information about COVID-19 immunity, says Felgner, adjunct professor of physiology & biophysics.

His team has developed a coronavirus antigen microarray – a collection of microscopic DNA bits– that holds hundreds of different types of disease proteins, such as those from influenza, malaria and now COVID-19.

Image of Phil Felgner
Image of Phil Felgner

Blood samples are compared to each of these disease proteins to determine a person’s antibody response – and help researchers understand why some people get seriously ill with COVID-19 while others don’t.

The antigen microarray, dubbed COVAM, can also be used to shed light on additional mysteries about COVID-19, including how an individual’s antibody response to infection evolves over time, and what antigens would be optimal for vaccine development.

Felgner and his lab hope to answer other key questions that researchers and the general public are asking:

  • Were the flu-like symptoms I just experienced from COVID-19?
  • Do I have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19?
  • Do my antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 protect me from COVID-19?
  • Do I need to get sick to generate antibodies that protect me from COVID-19, or is an asymptomatic infection enough?
  • How can I tell when I have an asymptomatic exposure that induces protective antibodies against SARS-CoV-2?
  • How long will my protective antibodies last?
  • Are we building up herd immunity worldwide over time against the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
  • Will the herd immunity we develop this year last until next year?

“We have to get these answers,” says Felgner, who has been at UCI since 2002. “My parents were children during the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak. It feels as if we’re having an experience like that now.”

He adds that he and his team “feel privileged that we’re in a position to really contribute so much to solving this problem.”

Felgner has applied for a provisional patent on COVAM because of technologies developed by his lab.

“The way the scientific infrastructure has been able to converge on this pandemic – and how our funding agencies have focused so much attention on it so quickly – should give everybody a lot of optimism about the future,” he says.