Cluster Investigation of COVID-19

COVID Cluster Investigation

The current COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a major collaboration between researchers at SUNY Upstate Medical University led by Dr. Frank Middleton and The RNA Institute at the University at Albany – SUNY, led by Dr. Andrew Berglund. Combining the clinical and diagnostic expertise at Upstate with the research experts at the RNA Institute, the two groups seek to address fundamental questions about the disease including: How does the disease spread amongst newly-diagnosed cases? Are some patients resistant to infection? How are New York State residents recovering from this disease? Answering these questions now will help doctors and researchers protect the health and welfare of New York State residents, including SUNY students and employees statewide, as well as the communities in which they reside.

The current COVID-19 crisis represents a serious threat to the health and well-being of at-risk individuals, the general population, as well as the economy and infrastructure of New York State, the current epicenter of this crisis. As of April 28th, confirmed cases within Upstate’s coverage area (shown in yellow), which represents 25% of the New York State population, have risen to 1,568 resulting in 53 deaths ( Lessons learned from this study will help New York State and other yet to be affected US States combat this terrible disease.

Currently, treatments to understand and control how patients react to the virus are lacking, as are effective interventions to stop or reduce virus transmission. Despite the growing body of global research into COVID-19, there is still a great need to better understand the virus, its biology, how it affects and is transmitted amongst patients, and if there is an emergence of immunity. As the epicenter of the disease, New York represents the front-line for this research, with Upstate and RNA Institute researchers posed to answer these important global questions.

Researchers involved in the collaboration will conduct a 100 day study of 3,600 people from 1,200 households in New York State, collecting samples to be studied by SUNY investigators now and into the future to fight against COVID-19. Participants of all ages, from infants to seniors, will be looked at in clusters, based on their SARS-CoV-2 test results. These clusters will include household family members as well as surrounding neighbors, who will all be monitored closely to identify medical, biological and genetic features associated with the progression and recovery from COVID-19.

By collecting saliva and blood samples and recording symptoms of people within these clusters, Upstate and RNA Institute researchers want to answer the following questions:

  • How long can patients spread the virus during the initial days of hospitalized or home illness?
  • How quickly do people who initially test negative for COVID-19 develop symptoms for the illness?
  • How quickly do people living with patients positive for the virus catch the illness?
  • How does the genetics of the patient, the virus or the multitude of other microbes of the human body influence the resistance and recovery from illness?

The researchers hope to develop a more complete understanding of COVID-19 disease and develop signatures or genetic fingerprints of the virus that can be connected to disease susceptibility and severity. They also seek to determine how the disease is transmitted in the population and identify ways to stop or vastly reduce transmission between people. Lastly the researchers want to understand how the genetics of the patient and the virus interact and if those genetic interactions influence if and how the disease develops or how patients become resistant to or recover from infection.

The Upstate and RNA Institute teams will create a highly-valuable snapshot of patient and viral samples and data to provide immediate help to fight the current COVID-19 pandemic. They expect this resource to provide considerable opportunities for future research and discovery by other SUNY investigators. Data and samples collected during this study and the work of these scientists will provide an invaluable long-term resource for SUNY scientists and research teams from around the world, who are fighting to ensure the virus does not continue to impact global health. It will aid research as well in developing ways to fight similar viruses and outbreaks in the future.

This high-impact research project is funded by the SUNY Office of Research and Economic Development led by Dr. Grace Wang and is part of a rich portfolio of research projects addressing various scientific and medical aspects of COVID-19 across SUNY campuses.


About SUNY Upstate Medical University

SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY, is the only academic medical center in Central New York. As a biomedical research enterprise, Upstate focuses on the most prevalent human diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, nervous system disorders, vision, and infectious diseases. The quest for treatments and cures is built upon expertise in structural, molecular and systems biology. Upstate also offers many clinical trials for patients.


About The RNA Institute

The RNA Institute at the University at Albany, NY, develops and delivers tools, analytics and early stage discoveries necessary for the progression of RNA-based therapeutics and diagnostics. It brings together leading researchers from higher education and other institutions and industry and offers advanced facilities for RNA research that are critical to new frontiers in human health.

The team from the RNA Institute, led by the Director, Dr. Andrew Berglund, includes experts on viral RNA (Dr. Cara Pager), oral microbiome (Dr. Alex Valm) and genomics (Dr. Morgan Sammons) as well as assistance from Dr. Sridar Chittur, Director of the DNA Microarray Core Facility at the Center for Functional Genomics University at Albany. This group and other talented researchers at the RNA Institute are looking forward to making a difference in the battle against COVID-19.


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