Hundreds of Asymptomatic Airmen to Be Tested in COVID-19 'Surveillance' Study

U.S. Air Force airman oversees COVID-19 testing.
U.S. Air Force airman from the 133rd Medical Group oversees the COVID-19 testing in St. Paul, Minn., June 4, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Amy Lovgren)

The Air Force plans to test hundreds of active-duty volunteers for COVID-19 to determine whether identifying infected, asymptomatic individuals can help prevent outbreaks of the disruptive and sometimes fatal illness.

The service plans to test using a new oral swab kit made by a California startup at four Air Force Materiel Command facilities beginning this month. The goal of this "surveillance study" is to "test people without symptoms for COVID-19 to determine if additional public health actions are needed in work areas," according to a service release.

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The research follows a collaboration earlier this fall between the company, San Dimas-based Curative, Inc., and the Air Force's 711th Human Performance Wing. That effort involved testing symptomless patients at civilian locations, and was expected to end Oct. 10, according to a Department of Defense spokeswoman.

Curative's COVID-19 saliva tests have been allowed for research and use under an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

The Air Force's surveillance testing will involve 100 active-duty volunteers at each of four locations: Edwards Air Force Base, California; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts; and Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

Over a two-month period, the tests will be conducted in two-week increments, starting with health care workers, followed by dorm residents, base wing personnel and the installation workforce.

Researchers will organize groups of four to six people to create an aggregate sample that will receive a single identification number before it is sent to a lab for testing. The results will not be entered into a volunteer's health records, as the research is not being ordered through the medical system and individual test results will not be determined.

Instead, if an aggregated result is positive, public health officials can provide guidance to the unit that might include self-isolation for unit members, site inspections and disinfecting work areas, according to Air Force officials.

The tests, which are far less invasive than the adenoid-tickling nasopharyngeal COVID-19 swab tests, are self-administered: patients are told to cough three times, swab their mouths, drop their swabs into a container, seal it and turn it in for processing by a lab.

According to the company, the method safeguards health care workers and decreases their need for frequent personal protective equipment changes, while also freeing up providers and support staff.

A small study by Yale University researchers of 70 patients hospitalized for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus found that nasal swab tests were as effective, if not more so, than the nasopharyngeal swab tests. A follow-on study by the same scientists tested 495 asymptomatic health care workers using the oral swabs and found 13 had detectable levels of the coronavirus's RNA. Seven of the 13 had tested negative that day using a nasopharyngeal swab sample.

"This is an important capability that will strengthen our medical professionals' ability to detect, isolate and defeat the spread of COVID-19 across the military," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Lee Payne, head of DOD's COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force. "The ability to reliably test service members and their families is critical towards securing our forces' health and readiness."

The Pentagon awarded a $42 million contract to Curative in July to provide 250,000 oral swab kits to military treatment facilities, along with associated lab and administrative support, funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

More than 7,800 active-duty personnel have already received the test at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. It is also being used at 10 other Air Force facilities to test symptomatic patients, and Navy officials say they will introduce it at 27 medical facilities to test sick patients.

The Defense Health Agency is developing a list of sites where it plans to offer the COVID-19 saliva tests. The Army does not plan to use the test, Pentagon officials said.

As of Friday, a total of 70,527 persons affiliated with the Department of Defense -- military personnel, dependents, civilian employees and contractors -- have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

Nearly 50,000 service members, including 18,213 soldiers, 10,688 sailors, 7,528 airmen, 6,027 Marines and 5,663 National Guard members, have been diagnosed. Eight troops have died.

Across the U.S., cases continue to rise, an average of 15% over the past two weeks, to roughly 44,000 new cases per day, while deaths declined by 5% in the same time frame, according to the New York Times.

More than 7.8 million Americans have contracted the virus and nearly 215,000 have died.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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