Marines help battle COVID-19 through cutting-edge study

Marines volunteer in COVID-19 research program
Marines volunteer in COVID-19 research progra... 01:51

Last Updated Jul 14, 2020 7:35 PM EDT

It's one of COVID-19's many mysteries: why do young people more easily neutralize the virus? The answer could come from a cutting-edge study led by the U.S. Navy and Marines. 

"We need to understand what those things are in order to further dive down into how our bodies can best and most effectively fight off the infection," Navy commander and immunologist Dr. Andrew Letizia, who's leading a study at the Citadel in South Carolina, told CBS News. 

"There simply isn't another cohort, where we have otherwise young and healthy individuals coming from around America, all to the very same place," he added. "This particular population is very unique in the sense that many of them are young and healthy and are able to fight off infections and often do not even have any symptoms at all."  

Volunteers like the Marines' Hezekiah Barron give Letizia's team saliva, nasal swabs and blood samples. 

"I am very concerned because we are like, with each other, almost like within very close spaces all day every day," he said. 

The U.S. military has had a difficult fight with the virus. Back in March, the virus raced through the Teddy Roosevelt aircraft carrier, infecting at least 1,200 sailors and killing one. Over the weekend, dozens of Marines stationed in Okinawa were infected.     

"Our concern in the recruit setting is [...] due to the intrinsic cohorting of individuals, so you'll have individuals that are training together, they are eating together, they are in barracks and sleeping together as well. Certainly, respiratory viruses including COVID-19 can spread like wildfire in that situation," Letizia said. 

"It affects all of us, because we can't see it. It's everywhere, but nowhere," said Colonel Ricoh Player, who commands the Marine COVID task force at Parris Island. "The taxpayers expect us to be ready and continue our mission, no matter what's going on. 

Incoming trainees will be tested six times over a period of eight weeks, Letizia said. If they test positive, they'll be asked if they would like to enroll in an additional study focused on their immune system response. 

Researchers will track up to 700 volunteers who have tested positive for eight weeks, to learn more about how the infection spreads and how antibodies and other biomarkers are fighting the virus. 

"Some of the analyses that we're doing, including understanding how our immune systems are able to fight off the infection, involves obtaining a certain subset of white blood cells called peripheral blood mononuclear cells — which are very specific cells that are really the frontline soldiers that are meant to fight off the viral infection," Letizia said. 

"This is awfully, awfully novel research that we're doing on a very robust scale and again, really emphasizes the ability of the Navy, Marine Corps research team to extend its power to move into that austere setting to bring the research lab to the to the forefront in order to execute the project that improves the health of our Marines," he added. "But also society in general, because I think some of the questions that we're really attempting to answer will help in the reopening of America." 

Letizia's initial findings will be published next month. 

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    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.