Do COVID-19 vaccines stop transmission? Top scientists are now recruiting thousands of college students to find out

Coronavirus vaccine Moderna trial college students transmission study
Richard Biggs, 20, an evolutionary biology major at the University of Colorado Boulder gets his first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

  • A study launched on Thursday to see how well Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine stops the spread of the virus.
  • The clinical trial will recruit 12,000 college students across 21 campuses.
  • Scientists hope it will tell us how well vaccines prevent asymptomatic infections and stop transmission.
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Scientists launched an ambitious research study on Thursday that aims to figure out how well Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine works to prevent people from spreading the virus to others.

We know Moderna’s shot is very good at preventing people from becoming sick with the disease. But we don’t yet know if vaccinated people could still harbor the virus, perhaps without showing symptoms, and pass it on to others.

To figure that out, researchers plan to recruit 12,000 students across 21 college campuses, including the University of Maryland, Texas A&M, and Indiana University. People interested in participating can register online at PreventCOVIDU.org.

“We hope that within the next five or so months, we’ll be able to answer the very important question about whether vaccinated people get infected asymptomatically, and if they do, do they transmit the infection to others,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, said Friday at a White House COVID-19 taskforce briefing.

Half of the volunteers will receive Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine right away, while the other half will get their shots four months later. While compensation varies, some student volunteers can get paid almost $1,000 to participate.

Researchers will track the volunteers to see how well vaccination prevents coronavirus infections, including asymptomatic cases, and reduces viral transmission among their close contacts. Every day, volunteers will take swabs of their nose, place them into a bar-coded vial, and drop them off at collection boxes. The samples will then be sent to laboratories to be checked for the coronavirus.

The trial will hopefully deliver results in September, Dr. Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said in an interview. Corey has spearheaded the trial, helping design the study and advocating for funding since November, Insider previously reported.

Scientists zeroed in on colleges as an ideal place to carry out this research. One nationwide study found nearly 400,000 COVID-19 cases on campuses since reopening last fall.

“High-density housing, the impulse to socialize and less fear of severe disease in young people are all factors that contribute to the high burden of SARS-CoV-2 infection on college campuses,” Dr. Holly Janes, a professor at Fred Hutch and study leader, said in a statement.

Answering one of the largest unknowns around COVID-19 vaccines

The first COVID-19 shots, from Moderna and Pfizer, proved to be overwhelmingly effective in data first released in November 2020. The primary goal of those studies was to look at symptomatic cases of COVID-19, partly because it was an easier metric to track.

Those studies enrolled tens of thousands of people, and showed the shots were incredibly effective at preventing people from developing symptomatic cases cases of COVID-19. In Moderna’s study, the two-dose vaccine was 94% effective at preventing COVID-19 cases, when compared to people who got placebo shots.

The initial studies left open the possibility that immunized people could still be vulnerable to spreading the virus, potentially as unknowing asymptomatic carriers.

“It’s definitely an unknown,” Corey said. “In my circles, it’s been pretty well delineated that you don’t know whether you can asymptomatically transmit, and therefore you should still be careful around unvaccinated persons.”

That uncertainty has been a key reason public-health officials have urged the public, including vaccinated individuals, to continue wearing masks and socially distancing.

While real-world data gives hopeful signs the shots have a marked impact on reducing infections, this study will attempt to answer that question in a rigorous manner.

Delay in funding could take it longer to find an answer

Moderna coronavirus vaccine trial college students transmission asymptomatic infection study
Olivia Parsons, 22, a neuroscience major at the University of Colorado Boulder, left, gets her first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

While the original goal was to start this research in January, it took longer than expected to secure federal funding to run the study, the Wall Street Journal’s Peter Loftus reported in December. The emergence of variants, ramping up of vaccine supply, and recognition that the virus would likely become endemic helped move the study proposal along, Corey said.

The US National Institute of Health’s infectious-disease unit is funding the trial, and Corey said the funding is in the “high tens of millions.”

The delay may make it harder for the trial generate an answer. The US government is pushing to make all American adults eligible for vaccines by May 1. For volunteers who are randomly selected to receive the shot four months later, that means waiting until July.

Corey hopes a sense of altruism will convince volunteers to stick with the trial

The five-month follow-up period will also bleed into the summer for volunteers, when some will likely depart campuses. That could make it harder to track or keep people in the study. Corey said the trial sites will look to recruit students who want to stay on campus or live nearby, and he hopes a sense of altruism will retain volunteers, even if they can access a vaccine outside the trial.

“The reason to volunteer is to help the country answer this question for themselves and their parents and their relatives and their communities,” Corey said.

Despite those challenges, the biggest obstacle, securing funding to run the trial, has been overcome. The research has the potential to provide the best data yet to answer a question that will inform how quickly society can get back to a world without masking and social distancing.

And, in the process, some college kids can get the vaccine now and be paid help figure out the answer to this question. Compensation will vary by location to account for cost-of-living differences, and volunteers can make as much as $947 if they fully participate, a Fred Hutchinson spokesperson said.

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