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Thursday 12 August 2021 9:05am

Christchurch researchers are aiming to get a handle on the number of Kiwis exposed to COVID-19 and how long antibodies to COVID-19 may last as part of a Government-funded study.

Chris Pemberton image
Professor Chris Pemberton.

Professor Chris Pemberton and a team from the University of Otago, Christchurch, have been funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to test up to 3,000 New Zealanders to see if they have been exposed to COVID-19. The team will test a representative group of Kiwis – aged from 10 to 80 from many regions of the country – to see if they have been exposed to the virus and developed antibodies. They will also follow the participants over three years to assess medium term outcomes – especially those of the heart – from COVID-19 exposure.

Professor Pemberton, who heads up the Translational Biodiscovery Laboratory at the Christchurch Heart Institute, a University of Otago Christchurch research group, says the study will provide important information on antibody longevity and scope, especially in the vaccination era, and mediumterm heart health.

“Antibodies are an important defence against a virus such as COVID-19 and their presence is one proof it has encountered the virus. We have developed new tests to antibodies specific for COVID-19 as well as virus proteins that can identify whether someone has contracted COVID-19 and how their body has dealt with it. We are particularly interested in looking at why some people develop “long COVID” and have a protracted recovery. Over the next three years, the team will marry specific test results with people's health records to see how exposure to the virus affected their health, especially with respect to the heart.”

Professor Pemberton says because the study will look at a wide range of New Zealanders and follow them over time, it will potentially show an evolving immune-based picture of the virus and post-infection cardiac outcomes. This will be compared with individuals who have been vaccinated and give some indication of the protective effects of vaccination.

The study will also focus on how the virus affects heart health. Professor Pemberton says previous international evidence shows people who have an acute viral infection may be more vulnerable to cardiac events in the short term and more likely to suffer another cardiac emergency compared with other patients.

“We will be able to see the severity of disease in those who experienced COVID-19 and how it affects people's heart health. We want to explore whether people who have a moderate to severe case of COVID experience cardiovascular issues later down the track.”

The researchers have developed their tests and have begun recruiting participants.

The study will have a distinctly “NZ Inc.” flavour as critical components needed to manufacture the tests are New Zealand made.

“We have had a fantastic collaboration with University colleagues and those at SeraTec NZ to keep key components of our test internally made and sourced, thus protecting our supply chain from potential future closures/restrictions, not just here but elsewhere. Plus, we are proud to be supporting and help advance Kiwi biotechnology in this area,” Professor Pemberton says.

The study is funded by the MBIE COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund.

For further information, please contact:

Paula de Roeper
Communication Manager
Christchurch Heart Institute
Mob +64 27 316 0571

Lorelei Mason
Media Adviser
University of Otago Christchurch
Mob +64 21 279 2203

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