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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

Coronavirus antibody tests will soon be available to Washingtonians

The University of Washington's Virology Lab on Friday announced it has begun performing tests that detect whether a person has previously been infected with the 2019 novel coronavirus.

The antibody tests are slated to be available to the public through one's health care provider sometime early next week.

The announcement comes as governments around the world face mounting pressure to make antibody testing widely available, in hopes that people with proven immunity can return to work.

These tests differ from Covid-19 diagnostic tests in that they detect coronavirus antibodies — the proteins created by the immune system in response to the presence of the virus — rather than the actual virus. Antibodies typically shield a person from being reinfected by the disease for which their immune system has produced them.

"Previously, we've found the virus itself, " said Dr. Keith Jerome, director of the Virology Lab during a Friday morning press conference.

"That's great if you're dealing with someone who is infected right now," he said. "But one of the other big questions we need to understand is, has a given individual been infected in the past?"

The antibody tests, which are conducted by drawing blood, are manufactured by the Illinois-based health care company Abbott Laboratories, Inc. The company began shipping the tests on Thursday.

Scientists at the helm of coronavirus antibody research efforts have warned about the potential for such tests to generate false positives, thus giving people a false sense of protection against the virus.

Researchers have also pointed toward the possibility that such tests are detecting antibodies for other coronavirus strains, rather than the one at the center of our current pandemic.

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

However, Virology Lab officials say they've found that the Abbott antibody tests yield much more dependable results than other tests on the market.

"The test seems to be very, very sensitive — that if a person has had Covid, the test, detects [antibodies] with a very, very high degree of reliability," Jerome said.

"Maybe even more important, the test seems to be very, very specific," he said. "That is, if you've had some other virus — even one of the old, other coronaviruses — at least in our hands, we're not seeing any false positives with this test."

Even with the promising results of the Abbott tests, there are still unanswered questions surrounding how defensive novel coronavirus antibodies actually are against the virus.

"In other viruses, these antibodies are protective — you won't get reinfected," said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the Virology Lab. But it's not yet clear how long novel coronavirus antibodies might remain in a person's blood.

"From what we know about other coronaviruses, these antibodies probably don't protect you for the rest of your life," Jerome said. "They probably last for a year or two — maybe three — but these are all 'maybes.'"

Despite this, researchers believe Covid-19 antibodies should afford some degree of defense against the disease.

"It may not be perfect protection, and what I mean is that it might be possible to get infected again," Jerome said. "But if you did, you wouldn't end up in the hospital."

The Virology 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 to that point will take some time.

"Realistically, not everyone's going to be able to get this test next week — that's just the reality of things," Jerome said, adding that testing priority likely won't be given to those who haven't previously exhibited Covid-19 symptoms.

"There's probably not a lot of utility in using up one of these testing slides to say, 'Yeah — you never had it, and you still should be wearing the masks."