ATLANTA – Three months into the COVID-19 outbreak in the US, it is still difficult to get tested for the virus, unless you are either severely ill or belong to a high-risk group.
That could soon be changing.
At Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, researchers have developed a blood test that can detect antibody responses in people who have been exposed to the virus.
Antibodies are tiny proteins created when a person’s immune system is fighting off a virus.
Dr. Aneesh Mehta, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Emory School of Medicine, says the test is a blood test that can be turned around in about 24 hours.
“This test is simply done by drawing one tube of blood, just like we draw with any other clinical test, and that is sent to the laboratory,” Mehta says.
He says Emory Healthcare will begin testing inpatients, certain outpatients, healthcare providers and some employees.
Mehta says they hope to scale up from processing about 300 tests a day to as many as 5,000 a day by mid-June.
Right now, a diagnostic nasal swab can detect an active infection, but it cannot reveal if a person has been infected in the past.
The Emory test would indicate whether a person has developed antibodies after being exposed to COVID-19 at some point in time.
Mehta says the test is highly sensitive and targets a very specific protein on the surface of the virus.
“If someone has antibodies that are positive on this test, if we detect antibodies on this test, we are very confident they did become infected, and they had COVID 19, whether they had mild, or moderate, or severe, or maybe very little symptoms at all,” he says.
Because of delays in ramping up diagnostic testing for COVID-19, Mehta says, many cases may have been overlooked.
Many people, he says, may not have been tested because their symptoms were mild or they were not able to get access to testing.
Still, the presence of antibodies does not guarantee immunity to COVID-19.
“At this point, we’re not sure how protective and how long the protection of these antibodies will last,” Mehta says. “But, I do think in the coming weeks we’ll know the answers and be able to offer that to our patients and healthcare workers, and to follow them over time, to see if that protection remains.”
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