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Clinical Laboratory Testing of USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Crew During COVID-19 Outbreak Offers Insights into the Coronavirus’ Impact on Young Healthy Adults

The CDC and US Navy study reveals common symptoms and suggests best protective measures to prevent spread in enclosed environments that clinical labs and pathology groups could use to protect their staff members

Results from a study conducted by the US Navy and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of sailors onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the recent COVID-19 outbreak aboard the ship may be useful for pathologists and clinical laboratory managers. The study also provides public health and infectious disease specialists with an opportunity to learn more about how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spreads in enclosed environments.

The aircraft carrier garnered headlines in April due to a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus among its crew. The investigators asked crewmembers to complete a questionnaire and provide samples for a serological antibody test and molecular diagnostics test, reported the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). The goal was to learn more about the disease and how it spreads in high-density environments. The COVID-19 tests were conducted April 20-24 while the ship was docked in Guam.

The CDC published the results on June 12 in its “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”

An Early Picture of Infection in Young People

“This study paints a picture of current and prior SARS-CoV-2 infection among young adults living in close quarters,” said the study’s lead author Dan Payne, PhD, an epidemiologist at the CDC, in the BUMED statement. “This data will contribute to understanding COVID-19 in the US military, as well as among young adults in other close communal environments.”

Participation in the study was voluntary. At the time of testing, a total of 1,417 service members were still on the ship or at the base in Guam, the researchers wrote in their study. Among them, 383 crewmembers agreed to complete the survey and provide a blood sample for an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) antibody test. Out of that group, 267 also provided nasal swab samples for a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) molecular diagnostic test.

aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during the investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak in April 2020
A clinical laboratory team from the Naval Hospital Guam and the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center are seen above collecting surveys, nasal swabs, and blood samples from sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during the investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak in April. The ship’s medical leaders established an emergency command center, initiated a roving and deep cleaning team, and continually educated the crew on social distancing and proper protective procedures and behaviors, to mitigate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. (Photo copyright: US Navy.)

The questionnaire sought information about sailors’ demographic factors, health history, symptoms, and preventive behaviors, such as mask wearing and physical distancing. Crewmembers who tested positive for reactive antibodies received an additional test to detect presence of neutralizing antibodies that inhibit the virus.

The median age of participants was 30 years. About 75% were male. Only 28 (7.3%) reported comorbidities such as a history of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, or immunosuppression, which are considered risk factors for developing serious cases of the COVID-19 disease.

Key findings of the CDC/Navy’s study:

  • 228 participants (59.7%) tested positive for reactive antibodies. Of those, 135 (59.2%) tested positive for neutralizing antibodies.
  • 235 participants had previously tested positive in a SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test. Of those, 212 (90.2%) tested positive for reactive antibodies.
  • A total of 238 participants had a previous or current SARS-CoV-2 infection. Of these, 18.5% reported no symptoms.
  • Of the 194 sailors who reported symptoms, 115 (59.3%) sought medical care, and two were hospitalized.
  • The most frequently reported symptoms were headache (66.5%), loss of taste or smell or both (61.3%); myalgia (56.2%); runny nose (55.7%); and fatigue (55.2%).
  • The most effective preventive measures were avoidance of common areas, increased physical distancing, and use of face coverings.

“What we saw was that most of the infections were actually mild, in addition to those that were asymptomatic,” Payne told reporters after the study was published, reported CNN. “And this is perhaps different from studies of older Americans, or maybe even those who were hospitalized already, and certainly much different from those with underlying health conditions.”

But with the high number of asymptomatic cases, “symptom-based surveillance might not detect all infections,” noted the researchers, who cautioned that “the analysis was conducted on a convenience sample of persons who might have had a higher likelihood of exposure, and all information was based on self-report, raising the possibility of selection and recall biases.”

In January, the crew of the Roosevelt totaled about 4,800 sailors, reported Defense One. However, after docking in Guam, many sailors were moved to hotel rooms for quarantine. As of May 5, at least 1,156 crewmembers had tested positive for infection, Stars and Stripes reported, and one had died.

Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt were examined prior to re-boarding the ship
Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt were examined prior to reboarding the ship following off-ship quarantine or isolation. Only those found to be negative for the coronavirus, were allowed to board the ship. (Photo copyright: US Navy.)

Impact of COVID-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Crew

As of April 6, 172 crew members had tested positive for COVID-19, including the ship’s captain Brett Crozier. At that time, 61% of the crew had received clinical laboratory testing and 1,999 sailors had been moved off the ship into quarantine, reported Defense One. By the next day, 270 sailors tested positive, a 57% increase from the previous day.

By April 14, 589 crew members were diagnosed positive for COVID-19. With 92% of the crew tested, 3,922 were found to be negative for the infection. Nevertheless, 4,024 sailors—nearly 83% of the crew—were moved into isolation quarters off-ship to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

In their study, the Navy/CDC researchers concluded: “In this convenience sample of young, healthy US service members experiencing close contact aboard an aircraft carrier, those with previous or current SARS-CoV-2 infection experienced mild illness overall, and nearly 20% were asymptomatic. Approximately one third of participants reported fever, myalgia, and chills and had higher odds of SARS-CoV-2 infection than did persons who reported cough and shortness of breath. Participants reporting anosmia (loss of sense of smell) or ageusia (loss of sense of taste) had 10 times the odds of having infection, compared with those who did not.

“In this sample of intensely exposed subjects, assessed at a single point in time, results demonstrated that antibodies developed and that, at the time of specimen collection, many of these were neutralizing antibodies. … This is a promising indicator of immunity, and in several participants, neutralizing antibodies were still detectable >40 days after symptom onset. Ongoing studies assessing the humoral antibody response over time will aid the interpretation of serologic results in an outbreak investigation such as this.

“These results provide new indications of symptomatology of SARS-CoV-2 infections and serologic responses among a cohort of young US adults living in a congregate environment and contribute to a better understanding of COVID-19 epidemiology in the US military. The findings reinforce the importance of nonpharmaceutical interventions such as wearing a face covering, avoiding common areas, and observing social distancing to lower risk for infection in similar congregate living settings.”

Not all the specific lessons learned from this COVID-19 outbreak aboard a US Navy vessel will be applicable to clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups. Nevertheless, it is probable that the data gleaned from the CDC/Navy study aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt will someday mean civilian Americans can count on improved responses to disease outbreaks from the nation’s testing laboratories.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

SARS-CoV-2 Infections and Serologic Responses from a Sample of U.S. Navy Service Members — USS Theodore Roosevelt, April 2020

Navy Investigation Finds 60 Percent of USS Theodore Roosevelt Volunteers Have COVID-19 Antibodies

New Study of USS Theodore Roosevelt Sailors Reveals How Coronavirus Affects Young, Healthy Adults

What the USS Roosevelt Can Teach Us about COVID-19 Spread

Sick Sailors Recovering on Guam Will Fly Home Rather than Rejoin USS Theodore Roosevelt

13 USS Roosevelt Sailors Test Positive for COVID-19, Again

CDC Study: Lower COVID-19 Infection Rate for TR Sailors Who Wore Face Coverings and Social Distanced

Findings from USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Health Investigation Support Force Health Protection

Theodore Roosevelt Sailors Volunteer to Support Public Health Outbreak Investigation

Outbreak Investigation Aboard US Aircraft Carrier May Contain Clues about COVID-19 Among the Young and Healthy

After Outbreak on Carrier Roosevelt, Many Have Antibodies

Navy Ship Outbreak Shows Most Young Aren’t Spared COVID Symptoms

We Still Don’t Fully Understand the Label ‘Asymptomatic’

Clinical and Immunological Assessment of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections

Multiple Studies Raise Questions About Reliability of Clinical Laboratory COVID-19 Diagnostic Tests

In the absence of a “gold standard,” researchers are finding a high frequency of false negatives among SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR tests

Serology tests designed to detect antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness have been dogged by well-publicized questions about accuracy. However, researchers also are raising concerns about the accuracy of molecular diagnostics which claim to detect the actual presence of the coronavirus itself.

“Diagnostic tests, typically involving a nasopharyngeal swab, can be inaccurate in two ways,” said Steven Woloshin, MD, MS, in a news release announcing a new report that “examines challenges and implications of false-negative COVID-19 tests.” Woloshin is an internist, a professor at Dartmouth Institute, and co-director of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

“A false-positive result mistakenly labels a person infected, with consequences including unnecessary quarantine and contact tracing,” he stated in the news release. “False-negative results are far more consequential, because infected persons who might be asymptomatic may not be isolated and can infect others.”

Woloshin led a team of Dartmouth researchers who analyzed two studies from Wuhan, China, and a literature review by researchers in Europe and South America that indicated diagnostic tests for COVID-19 are frequently generating false negatives. The team published their results in the June 5 New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

For example, one research team in Wuhan collected samples from 213 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and found that an approved RT-PCR test produced false negatives in 11% of sputum samples, 27% of nasal samples, and 40% of throat samples. Their research was published on the medRxiv preprint server and has not been peer-reviewed.

The literature review Woloshin’s team studied was also published on medRxiv, titled, “False-Negative Results of Initial Rt-PCR Assays for COVID-19: A Systematic Review.” It indicated that the rate of false negatives could be as high as 29%. The authors of the review looked at five studies that had enrolled a total of 957 patients. “The collected evidence has several limitations, including risk of bias issues, high heterogeneity, and concerns about its applicability,” they wrote. “Nonetheless, our findings reinforce the need for repeated testing in patients with suspicion of SARS-Cov-2 infection.”

Another literature review, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, titled, “Variation in False-Negative Rate of Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction–Based SARS-CoV-2 Tests by Time Since Exposure,” estimated the probability of false negatives in RT-PCR tests at varying intervals from the time of exposure and symptom onset. For example, the authors found that the median false-negative rate was 38% if a test was performed on the day of symptom onset, versus 20% three days after onset. Their analysis was based on seven studies, five of which were peer-reviewed, with a total of 1330 test samples.

Doctors also are seeing anecdotal evidence of false negatives. For example, clinicians at UC San Diego Health medical center treated a patient with obvious symptoms of COVID-19, but two tests performed on throat samples were negative. However, a third test, using a sample from a bronchial wash, identified the virus, reported Medscape.

The lesson for clinicians is that they can’t rely solely on test results but must also consider their own observations of the patient, Joshua Metlay, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital told Medscape.

Sensitivity and Specificity of COVID-19 Clinical Laboratory Tests

The key measures of test accuracy are sensitivity, which refers to the ability to detect the presence of the virus, and specificity, the ability to determine that the targeted pathogen is not present. “So, a sensitive test is less likely to provide a false-negative result and a specific test is less likely to provide a false-positive result,” wrote Kirsten Meek, PhD, medical writer and editor, in an article for ARUP Laboratories.

“Analytic” sensitivity and specificity “represent the accuracy of a test under ideal conditions in which specimens have been collected from patients with either high viral loads or a complete absence of exposure,” she wrote. However, “sensitivity and specificity under real-world conditions, in which patients are more variable and specimen collection may not be ideal, can often be lower than reported numbers.”

In a statement defending its ID Now molecular point-of-care test, which came under scrutiny during a study of COVID-19 molecular tests by NYU Langone Health, Northwell Health, and Cleveland Clinic, according to MedTech Dive, Abbott Laboratories blamed improper sample collection and handling for highly-publicized false negatives produced by its rapid test. An FDA issued alert about the test on May 14 noted that Abbott had agreed to conduct post-market studies to identify the cause of the false negatives and suggest remedial actions.

Issues with Emergency Use Authorizations

In their NEJM analysis, Woloshin et al point to issues with the FDA’s process for issuing Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs). For example, they noted variations in how manufacturers are conducting clinical evaluations to determine test performance. “The FDA prefers the use of ‘natural clinical specimens’ but has permitted the use of ‘contrived specimens’ produced by adding viral RNA or inactivated virus to leftover clinical material,” they wrote.

When evaluating clinical performance, manufacturers ordinarily conduct an index test of patients and compare the results with reference-standard test, according to the Dartmouth researchers. For people showing symptoms, the reference standard should be a clinical diagnosis performed by an independent adjudication panel. However, they wrote, “it is unclear whether the sensitivity of any FDA-authorized commercial test has been assessed in this way.” Additionally, a reference standard for determining sensitivity in asymptomatic people “is an unsolved problem that needs urgent attention to increase confidence in test results for contact-tracing or screening purposes.”

Stephen Rawlings, MD, PhD
“To truly determine false negatives, you need a gold standard test, which is essentially as close to perfect as we can get,” Stephen Rawlings, MD, PhD, (above), a resident physician of internal medicine and infectious diseases fellow at UC San Diego’s Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), who has been working on SARS-CoV-2 test validation since March. “But there just isn’t one yet for coronavirus,” he told Medscape. (Photo copyright: University of California, San Diego.)

In a perspective for Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Colin P. West, MD, PhD; Victor M. Montori, MD, MSc; and Priya Sampathkumar, MD, offered four recommendations for addressing concerns about testing accuracy:

  • Continued adherence to current measures, such as physical distancing and surface disinfection.
  • Development of highly sensitive and specific tests or combinations of tests to minimize the risk of false-negative results and ongoing transmission based on a false sense of security.
  • Improved RT-PCR tests and serological assays.
  • Development and communication of clear risk-stratified protocols for management of negative COVID-19 test results.

“These protocols must evolve as diagnostic test, transmission, and outcome statistics become more available,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, clinical laboratories remain somewhat on their own at selecting which COVID-19 molecular and serology tests they want to purchase and run in their labs. Complicating such decisions is the fact that many of the nation’s most reputable in vitro diagnostics manufacturers cannot produce enough of their COVID-19 tests to meet demand.

Consequently, when looking to purchase tests for SARS-CoV-2, smaller medical laboratory organizations find themselves evaluating COVID-19 kits developed by little-known or even brand-new companies.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

New Report Examines Challenges and Implications of False-Negative COVID-19 Tests

Questions about COVID-19 Test Accuracy Raised Across the Testing Spectrum

COVID-19 Test Results: Don’t Discount Clinical Intuition

FDA Provides New Tool to Aid Development and Evaluation of Diagnostic Tests That Detect SARS-CoV-2 Infection

EUA Authorized Serology Test Performance

Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) Information and List of All Current EUAs 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Provides Promised Transparency for Antibody Tests

Understanding Medical Tests: Sensitivity, Specificity, and Positive Predictive Value

Webinar Part 1: Quality Issues Your Clinical Laboratory Should Know Before You Buy or Select COVID-19 Serology Tests

Webinar Part 2: Achieving High Confidence Levels in the Quality and Accuracy of Your Clinical Lab’s Chosen COVID-19 Serology Tests, featuring James Westgard, PhD

Serological Antibody Tests a ‘Potential Game Changer’ and Next Phase in Efforts to Combat the Spread of COVID-19 That Give Clinical Laboratories an Essential Role

IVD Companies and medical laboratories are developing serological survey testing that will enable them to determine how widespread COVID-19 has become

While medical laboratories gear up for testing to detect SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness—efforts also are underway for expanded use of serological tests that can detect whether an individual’s immune systems has developed antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as serological surveys that epidemiologists will use to determine the extent of the infection in whole populations.

It can take up to eight days after onset of symptoms for a person’s immune system to develop antibodies, so serological tests are not designed for diagnosing recent or active infections, stated a Mayo Clinic news story. However, Reuters reported that the availability of serological tests is “a potential game changer” because they could identify people who are immune even if they had no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

“Ultimately, this might help us figure out who can get the country back to normal,” Florian Krammer, PhD, told Reuters. Krammer’s lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City has developed a serological test. “People who are immune could be the first people to go back to normal life and start everything up again,” he said.

However, some experts advise that the presence of antibodies is not necessarily a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to the coronavirus. “Infectious disease experts say immunity against COVID-19 may last for several months and perhaps a year or more based on their studies of other coronaviruses, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2003,” reported Reuters. “But [the experts] caution that there is no way to know precisely how long immunity would last with COVID-19, and it may vary person to person.”

Additionally, it is also “uncertain whether antibodies would be sufficient protection if a person were to be re-exposed to the virus in very large amounts,” such as in an emergency room or ICU, Reuters reported.

Serological Survey Studies Get Underway Worldwide

Aside from detecting potential immunity, the World Health Organization (WHO) says serological tests could be useful for widespread disease surveillance and epidemiological research.

In the US, the Vitalant Research Institute is leading several large serological survey or “serosurvey” studies in which regional blood centers save samples of donated blood for antibody testing, Science reported.

Science also reported on a similar WHO initiative in which six countries will pool data from their own antibody studies. And in the Netherlands, blood banks have begun screening thousands of blood donations for presence of antibodies, Wired reported.

FDA Emergency Use Authorization

On March 16, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would allow commercial development and distribution of serological tests that “identify antibodies (e.g., IgM, IgG) to SARS-CoV-2 from clinical specimens” without an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). The agency noted that these tests are “less complex than molecular tests” used to detect active infections, and that the policy change is limited to such testing in medical laboratories or by healthcare workers at the point-of-care. “This policy does not apply to at home testing,” the FDA reiterated.

“Serological tests can play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19 by helping healthcare professionals to identify individuals who have overcome an infection in the past and have developed an immune response,” said FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn, MD (above with President Trump during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing), in an April 7 press statement. “In the future, this may potentially be used to help determine—together with other clinical data—that such individuals are no longer susceptible to infection and can return to work. In addition, these test results can aid in determining who may donate a part of their blood called convalescent plasma, which may serve as a possible treatment for those who are seriously ill from COVID-19.” (Photo copyright: CNBC.)

FDA Issues First EUA for Rapid Diagnostic Test

Cellex Inc., based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., received the first EUA for its qSARS-CoV-2 serological test on April 1. As with other rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) under development, the qSARS-CoV-2 test detects the presence of immunoglobulin M (IgM) and immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies in human blood. The biotechnology company’s RDT can be used to test serum, plasma, or whole-blood specimens, stated Cellex, and can produce results in 15 to 20 minutes.

The FDA has authorized use of the antibody test only by laboratories certified under CLIA to perform moderate and high complexity tests. Cellex has set up a COVID-19 website with information about the qSARS-CoV-2 test for clinical laboratories, patients, and healthcare providers.

Other Serological Tests Under Development

Mayo Clinic Laboratories announced on April 13 that it is ramping up availability of an internally-developed serological test. “Initial capacity will be 8,000 tests per day performed at laboratory locations across Mayo Clinic,” stated the announcement. “Testing will be performed 24 hours a day, and Mayo Clinic Laboratories is working to ensure turnaround time is as close as possible to 24 hours after receipt of the sample.”

Emory University in Atlanta announced on April 13 that it will begin deploying its own internally developed antibody test. Initially, testing will be limited to 300 people per day, comprised of Emory Healthcare patients, providers, and staff members. Eventually, testing will be “expanded significantly,” said Emory, with a goal of 5,000 tests per day by mid-June.

The Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health lists dozens of other serologic tests that are under development, approved for use in other countries, or approved for research or surveillance purposes. Most are rapid diagnostic tests, but some developers are working on enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA).

RDTs are typically qualitative, meaning they produce a positive or negative result, stated the Center for Health Security. An ELISA test “can be qualitative or quantitative,” noted the Center, but it can take one to five hours to produce results.

A third type of serological test—the neutralization assay—involves infecting a patient’s blood with live coronavirus to determine if antibodies exist that can inhibit growth of the virus. The test takes three to five days in a level 3 biosafety laboratory to produce results. The Straits Times reported on one laboratory in Singapore that developed a neutralization assay to trace the source of COVID-19 infections that originated in Wuhan, China.

Serological testing is another important tool clinical laboratories and epidemiologists can use to fight and ultimately defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and is worth watching.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: Serological Tests

Policy for Diagnostic Tests for Coronavirus Disease-2019 during the Public Health Emergency

Advice on the Use of Point-of-Care Immunodiagnostic Tests for COVID-19

Serology-based Tests for COVID-19

FDA Officially Authorizes Its First Serological Antibody Blood Test for COVID-19

Cellex Cleared to Market Antibody Test for COVID-19

What Are Antibody Tests and What Do They Mean for the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Cellex qSARS-CoV-2 IgG/IgM Rapid Test

IgG/IgM Rapid Test Approved by FDA for EUA Use

EDI Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 ELISA Kits

Mayo Clinic Laboratories Launches Serology Testing In Support of COVID-19 Response