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Coronavirus In Seattle
caption: UW Virology Lab Manager Greg Pepper works with a Covid-19 antibody test manufactured by the Illinois-based health care company, Abbott Laboratories, Inc.
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UW Virology Lab Manager Greg Pepper works with a Covid-19 antibody test manufactured by the Illinois-based health care company, Abbott Laboratories, Inc.
Credit: UW Medicine

Yes, Covid-19 antibody tests are really available in Seattle. But patients have been told otherwise

The University of Washington's Virology Lab on Tuesday began processing thousands of Covid-19 antibody tests, which can detect whether a person has previously been infected with the 2019 novel coronavirus.

But as testing has gotten underway, some patients have been erroneously told by health care providers that the tests aren't available.

Cynthia Taylor fell ill with what she initially believed to be the seasonal flu on February 26. But as it became apparent days later that the area was in the early stages of a Covid-19 outbreak, Taylor wondered if she'd also been infected by the disease.

"I looked at all these stories and everything, and I thought, 'Wow — that could've been it,'" said Taylor, who lives in the Ravenna neighborhood of Northeast Seattle.

Blood banks in the area and across the country have put out calls for Covid-19 survivors to donate plasma, in an effort to develop life-saving treatments for patients with the disease.

For people like Taylor who may have had Covid-19 but weren't tested prior to recovering from their illness, antibody tests are a way to retroactively confirm an infection.

So when Taylor caught wind that the University of Washington was poised to begin antibody testing at its Virology Lab this week, she saw an opportunity to lend herself to science.

"Since I do think it's very likely that I had [Covid-19], I thought I'd get the antibody test so I could donate blood," she said.

Coronavirus antibody tests will soon be available to Washingtonians

But when Taylor reached out to her Kaiser Permanente physician's office, she was told that no such tests were available yet. That wasn't actually the case.

Taylor's doctor wasn't the only one to refute the availability of Covid-19 antibody tests, which leaders around the world and the U.S. have identified as an essential component of reopening their economies.

KUOW heard from other concerned readers — and even overwhelmed providers themselves — that the tests weren't available by Tuesday, when they in fact were.

"I think to some degree — because we're moving so fast — we have gotten a little bit ahead of the health care system," Dr. Keith Jerome, director of the Virology Lab told KUOW's The Record on Thursday.

The lab currently has capacity to run roughly 4,000 antibody tests each day and officials expect to ramp that up to between 12,000 and 14,000 daily tests within weeks. But getting there won't happen overnight.

"There are a lot of logistics about getting this test done, and the providers who are obviously incredibly busy and haven't been following what's going on at UW Virology have been a little surprised — like, 'Whoa, you guys are ready,'" Jerome added.

A Swedish Medical Group spokesperson told KUOW that lab staff were unaware of what the Virology Lab's antibody testing protocol entailed, or what messaging should be patients seeking the tests on the day of the launch. But the organization is working with staff to streamline communication to patients regarding test referrals.

Virology Lab officials say to expect antibody testing priority to be given to those who've previously exhibited Covid-19 symptoms, and are urging people to allow providers some time to coordinate the logistics of ordering the tests.

The tests, which are conducted by drawing blood, can be ordered by any licensed health care provider. Providers may opt to send patients to their own labs, labs operated by the University of Washington, or commercial labs for blood draws.

Also called serology tests, antibody tests detect proteins created by the immune system in response to the presence of a virus, rather than the virus itself. Antibodies typically shield a person from being reinfected by the disease for which their immune system has produced them.

Not all Covid-19 serology tests are created equal. Experts have cautioned about the potential for such tests to generate false positives, thus giving people a false sense of immunity to the disease.

Covid-19 immunity permits for Washingtonians? 'We're not quite there'

However, Virology Lab officials say the antibody tests they're processing yield much more dependable results than others on the market, citing a 100% sensitivity rate and 99.6% specificity rate. The tests being used are manufactured by the Illinois-based health care company Abbott Laboratories, Inc.

But even with reliable detection, it's still not certain whether Covid-19 antibodies protect against reinfection or how long they might last in a person's blood.

Given the research gaps, some medical professionals have advocated against offering Covid-19 antibody tests to the general public. Others have advocated for allowing patients access the tests and their results, even if the knowledge is preliminary.

"I think there is some truth to that idea that this is an indicator of one's philosophy to medicine, and how a health care provider, or a doctor, or other really sees the people they care for," Jerome said.

"If people get their results from this and really don't interpret them carefully, they can be misled and there's no doubt about that. And it's a it's a difficult thing, you know? Is the answer there that, 'Okay now nobody gets to know'? I'm not sure that that's a better solution — in fact I'd argue it's not."

Jerome said that researchers at the Virology Lab aim to help answer looming questions about Covid-19 antibodies through ongoing analyses of the Abbott tests.

"We'd love to be able to tell individuals that they've been infected or not with the virus. And then ultimately, we'd love to be able to tell people what that really means in terms of protection from future infection," he said.

He added that the lab will conduct studies "where we'll actually be following people over time, seeing what antibodies they have, and then following them to see if they get sick."

As of April 18, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency authorization for four different Covid-19 antibody tests, not including the Abbott's serology test. However, Abbott says it will soon file for emergency use authorization of the test.

Bill Radke contributed to this report.