Biological specimens like saliva, blood, or urine are often collected for use in routine patient monitoring and population surveys. Population surveys are essential because they provide current, detailed health and socio-demographic data that helps researchers understand which are the most vulnerable populations in a community when it comes to certain viral contagions or other health issues.
Challenges to Specimen Collection during a Pandemic or Other Crisis
In 2020-2021, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed the data collection approach. Researchers have embraced remote specimen collection for research and data collection methodologies. Previously, some researchers were hesitant to adopt new methods, but the coronavirus pandemic represents an opportunity for making these necessary changes, in advance of the next superbugs we may encounter. Biospecimen collection is one area that underwent rapid changes in 2020, especially in the rapid adoption of various devices for at-home sample collection.
The global rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has led to many research organizations launching serology studies for population surveys. The aim of many of these studies is to track both the natural immunity and vaccine-generated (adaptive) immunity of the population to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These immunity studies are not entirely new; one of the first of its kind was launched in April 2020 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
NIH Survey and Remote Specimen Collection
Research scientists at the NIH sent study participants remote biospecimen sample collection kits that included easy-to-use Mitra® devices for sample collection at home. These samples helped the researchers track cases of undiagnosed COVID-19 infections, and track natural immunity levels in the U.S. population. Study participants self-collected their own specimens at home, and returned their "microsamples" to the NIH labs via mail to determine their exposure to the virus. The presence of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus indicated past exposure, whether a participant had been symptomatic or asymptomatic.
This population survey was a success that furnished reliable data. It proved that remote microsampling is reliable and can deliver scientifically accurate results. The analytical models developed through this NIH study can be replicated by other research labs.
More labs worldwide have embraced the remote specimen collection trend to keep study participants safe at home. Many labs now process and analyze microsamples collected with remote specimen collection devices and kits.
The collection of biospecimens in population surveys provides the opportunity to identify biomarkers that address various concerns. Due to the difficulties brought about by regional lockdowns and social distancing, the collection of specimens has created an obstacle to conducting safe population surveys.
Remote specimen collection kits have played a role in helping researchers overcome this obstacle.
Many more research institutions are expected to pivot to using remote specimen collection platforms and methods as a way to safely and effectively track herd immunity as more people around the globe receive the COVID-19 vaccine.