Hundreds of Sailors Participated in a COVID-19 Antibodies Study. Here’s What Was Learned

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U.S. Navy is checked into the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) May 16, 2020, after completing off-base quarantine.
U.S. Navy is checked into the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) May 16, 2020, after completing off-base quarantine. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Erik Melgar)

More than 60% of sailors who volunteered to take part in a first-of-its-kind study on how the novel coronavirus affects young people living in tight quarters have developed antibodies for COVID-19 after testing positive for the illness.

The Navy and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released a weeks-long study into the coronavirus outbreak on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. Ultimately, 1,273 crew members tested positive for the sometimes-fatal illness caused by the virus, which killed one sailor assigned to the ship.

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There were 382 crew members who volunteered to participate in the Navy and CDC study, which included questionnaires, blood tests and nasal swabs. It's still unclear whether someone who's had the virus will be immune to catching it again, but the CDC's Daniel Payne, who co-authored the report, said evidence of antibodies in nearly two-thirds of the volunteers who had the illness was promising.

"This finding may give us an early glimpse into actual immune protection against COVID-19 in young adults," Payne said. "... These are actually important in that they could be indicators of some degree of immunity."

The COVID-19 outbreak on the Theodore Roosevelt led to a leadership breakdown in the Navy. The commanding officer of that ship was removed from his job after a letter he sent warning about the health crisis was published by the San Francisco Chronicle. The acting Navy secretary at the time who ordered the captain's relief later stepped down from his own job after facing backlash over his handling of the situation.

The ship spent nearly two months in Guam, where most of the crew was offloaded and the ship was disinfected. The carrier, which was underway when the outbreak began in March, is again operating in the Pacific.

The new study confirmed that there were symptom-free cases among the crew. One in five of the volunteers who tested positive for COVID-19 never showed any signs of the illness, Payne said.

"This actually may be an important feature of the disease in young adults," he added.

That comes a day after a World Health Organization official's comments over whether people without symptoms could spread the illness led to widespread confusion. The organization has since backtracked, saying they were wrong to call asymptomatic transition "very rare."

Payne said the Navy and CDC study didn't look specifically at whether asymptomatic crew members on the Roosevelt spread the virus.

"But what we do say," he added, "is that we found 18.5% of those who were infected were actually asymptomatic."

Most of the cases the Navy and CDC studied were mild, according to the report. When it came to symptoms, a loss of taste and smell was 10 times more likely to be reported in those who were infected with COVID-19 versus those who weren't.

Capt. Robert Hawkins, commander of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, said the prevalence of that symptom could lead to a new screening question for sailors and Marines.

Other common symptoms sailors in the study reported included muscle pain, fever and chills, Payne said.

The CDC added loss of taste or smell to its list of common COVID-19 symptoms in April, along with the existing list of cough, fever and shortness of breath.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: Top Navy Leaders Want Crozier Reinstated as Roosevelt's Commanding Officer: Report

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