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Antibody test for COVID-19
Greg Pepper, manager of the UW Medicine Virology Lab, works on a diagnostic blood test designed to detect COVID-19 antibodies. (UW Medicine Photo)

The University of Washington School of Medicine’s Virology Lab is reporting encouraging results from trial runs of a new test from Abbott Laboratories that detects the antibodies created by people who have had COVID-19, whether they knew they had it or not.

“This is a really fantastic test,” Keith Jerome, who leads UW Medicine’s virology program, told reporters today. He said UW’s lab could process 4,000 samples per day starting next week, and conceivably ramp up to 14,000 samples per day within a couple of weeks.

The test will be made available through health care providers, in medical clinics or perhaps through workplaces. It analyzes blood that’s drawn from patients, and looks for the telltale antibodies that a body’s immune system creates to defend against the coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Epidemiologists say knowing who has had the virus will be key to tracking the true spread of COVID-19, and giving assurances to people who are returning to school and work — particularly in front-line jobs ranging from first responders and health care workers to grocery store clerks.

“It’s possible this could be part of a back-to-work process,” Jerome said.

It’s not yet clear how much immunity people develop to COVID-19 in the course of fighting off the virus, but if SARS-CoV-2 behaves like other coronaviruses, Jerome said people with antibodies should have at least some protection from re-infection.

“It may not be perfect protection,” he said. “It might be possible to get infected again, but if you did, you wouldn’t end up in a hospital, OK? You might feel a little off, but then those antibodies pop right back up, take care of it, and you’re better. So you get infected, but it doesn’t really matter. It’s more like a regular cold. That’s a very possible outcome.”

The UW Medicine Virology Lab has played a longstanding role in validating diagnostic tests for infectious diseases and immunity. It was one of the first labs to develop its own tests for the presence of virus that causes COVID-19, and is currently capable of processing thousands of coronavirus tests daily. Thanks to that track record, Abbott gave the lab early access to its antibody test, also known as a serology test.

Other antibody tests have already come into the market, but Jerome said Abbott’s test is “very, very sensitive, with a high degree of reliability.”

Alex Greninger, the Virology Lab’s assistant director, said his team has run about 400 blood specimens through Abbott’s instruments, including samples that were stored from pre-COVID-19 blood tests. None of those old blood samples came back positive, but the test correctly identified people who were known to have had the virus.

Abbott’s internal study, involving 1,200 specimens, had a sensitivity of 100% to COVID-19 antibodies, Greninger said. Just as importantly, the test achieved a 99.6% specificity, meaning that it was almost always able to distinguish between SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses.

Once a blood specimen is drawn and delivered to the lab, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes to spin the sample to produce the serum for testing, and another 20 to 25 minutes to conduct the test, Greninger said. “The hardest part here is going to be getting the blood,” he said.

One issue that’s come up with regard to virus testing has to do with the availability of supplies, such as nasal swabs and reagents, but Jerome didn’t think this would be a problem for Abbott’s antibody test. “We’ve been assured that this pipeline is robust,” he said. Abbott says it’s shipping out almost 1 million of the tests to U.S. customers this week, and will ramp up to a total of 4 million tests in April. It plans to ship 20 million tests per month by June.

Jerome said the antibody test isn’t suitable for people who are just coming down with COVID-19. It takes about seven days for antibodies to develop, and the longer a person waits, the better.

He said being able to offer antibody tests will mark “another turning point in the fight against the virus,” ranking alongside the wider availability of virus testing, the impact of physical distancing on “flattening the curve” for COVID-19’s spread, and the bending of that curve past its peak in the Seattle area.

There’s also a chance that being able to detect antibodies for COVID-19 will speed the development of vaccines in the months ahead.

“This starts to get us to the point that we can make a difference for the population of our area, get people back to work and give them back the lives that they were hoping for,” Jerome said.

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