Serological study launched in Ticino to fight the coronavirus outbreak


Institutional Communication Service

21 April 2020

In Ticino, a network of reasearchers and healthcare facilities have teamed up in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, with a serological study performed through a collaboration between hospitals, Covid-19 centres in Ticino (EOC and Clinica Moncucco), the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) and Humabs BioMed (a subsidiary of Vir Biotecnologies). The aim is to investigate the immune response to Covid-19 by testing the presence of specific antibodies. The serological study is coordinated by the Clinical Trial Unit of the EOC (CTU-EOC) and is initially aimed at healthcare personnel as they are more exposed to the virus. In this report we find out more about the role of the IRB in this study.

The testing of healthcare personnel for the presence of antibodies specific to the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the Covid-19 infection, to understand how the infection developed in the population by identifying individuals who came into contact with the virus, independently of the symptoms developed. This is, in essence, the procedure that will be implemented in the coming weeks and which sees the expertise of various regional entities available to perform the different phases of the project. The collection of serum samples is underway at the Ente Ospedaliero Cantonale (EOC, the cantonal hospital), Cardiocentro Ticino, Hildebrand Clinic and Moncucco Clinic, which will then be sent for analysis to the IRB laboratories in Bellinzona. "We will receive between 3000 and 4000 serum samples in the coming weeks. The study, which is based on the participation of volunteers, will allow us map the infection in our region", explains Federica Sallusto, Group Leader at the IRB and Full professor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences, who with her group is in charge of the analysis of the samples.

In further detail, Prof. Sallusto explains how the testing for antibodies will go about: "Thanks to the collaboration with Humabs BioMed, which has provided the serological test developed by them and using the equipment available at the IRB, we will be able to measure the presence of antibodies against the new coronavirus in the serum of healthcare personnel. This data will allow us to have information on the development of an immune response to the virus. At the moment we cannot say whether individuals who have developed antibodies are protected against infection, but this data may serve in the future to determine whether the immune response is able to protect partially or totally from a re-infection".

In the age of coronavirus, a number of IRB laboratories are focused on Covid-19 research, starting with the one directed by Dr. Luca Varani, who participates in the European Commission's initiative []. "We have also responded to the special call of the Swiss National Science Foundation, which wants to urgently intensify coronavirus research to address the current crisis and prepare for likely future epidemics. The timely sharing of data and information and collaboration between hospitals, institutions and other regional entities is essential to develop effective and coherent solutions in the short term", explains Antonio Lanzavecchia, Director of the IRB and Full orofessor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences.

The importance of similar coordinated and collaborative research initiatives is also underlined by Prof. Alessandro Ceschi, Director of CTU-EOC and Adjunct professor at the USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences: "in addition to a correct scientific intuition and a rigorous and appropriate method, good organisation is also an essential element for the success of research projects". The CTU-EOC is a support service for clinical research at the EOC and USI, as reported in the agreement concerning research collaboration recently signed by USI and EOC.

The Institute of Public Health at USI, directed by Prof. Emiliano Albanese, has an important role in the project, for the analysis of the data collected. "Analyzing the data and measuring the effectiveness of the measures taken to deal with the emergency is essential, as is the sharing of experiences between cantons", says Prof. Albanese. This study will in fact make it possible to identify the possible 'seroprevalence' in the population, starting from this first group. At a later stage there is a plan to extend the study to a larger sample of the population. In this regard, the Swiss School of Public Health (SSPH+), the federation that includes 12 Swiss universities, including USI, has launched a project ( aimed at collecting data on the spread of the coronavirus and the rate of immunity of the population in the Confederation. The aim is to shed light on the scale of this epidemic to understand how best to manage the situation in the coming months and direct future political strategies".