A national study looking at the role children play in the COVID-19 pandemic will enroll about 200 families from Wisconsin, including farm families already enrolled in the ongoing Wisconsin Infant Study Cohort (WISC) project led by the National Farm Medicine Center at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute and the University of Wisconsin.

‚ÄčThe study, called Human Epidemiology and Response to SARS-CoV-2 (HEROS), was announced May 4. It will help determine the rate of novel coronavirus infection in children and their family members in the U.S. Two of the 11 cities where the research will be conducted include Marshfield and Madison. The others are Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit, Nashville, New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

"What I enjoy about this study is that it means rural people and farm families are represented in important research," said Casper Bendixsen, Ph.D., director of National Farm Medicine Center and co-investigator of the WISC study along with Drs. James Gern and Christine Seroogy, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

“The kids in the WISC study are in different environments than a lot of other kids who will be part of the HEROS program, in the fact they're largely rural," Bendixsen said.

The research is sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. It will help determine what percentage of children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop symptoms of the disease. In addition, the HEROS study will examine whether rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection differ between children who have asthma or other allergic conditions and children who do not.

The Wisconsin Infant Study Cohort project has already been examining how farm environments and exposure to livestock can promote a stronger immune system in children, making them less likely to develop asthma and atopy. WISC will look specifically for the prevalence of SARS-COV-2 in farm and non-farm children as well as their households through a series of questionnaires, nasal samples, stool samples and a newly developed blood sample collection method. The research will be conducted over a six-month period and will enroll approximately 2,000 families already participating in NIH-funded pediatric studies.

The study is additionally novel for being conducted entirely remotely with no face-to-face contact. 

Every two weeks, participating families will complete nasal samples and questionnaires that will search for viral RNA to help better understand how the virus spreads from person to person as well as understanding how the nasal mucosa react to the virus. The analysis will help researchers better understand if certain gene expressions related to allergic sensitization correlates with the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection. A small volume of blood is obtained via a new, nearly painless device through the surface of the skin. The blood will be analyzed for antibodies present against the SARS-COV-2 virus. If household members develop symptoms, additional samples and questionnaires are gathered that would help reveal risks of contracting SARS-CoV-2. 

The project is among a number of COVID-19 projects taking place within Marshfield Clinic Research Institute. View Dr. Bendixsen being interviewed by Wisconsin Public Radio.