ATLANTA — Researchers at Emory University announced this week they'd developed a test for COVID-19 antibodies, a potentially major step in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
In addition to letting us know who has or hasn't had the virus - giving us a much better scope of how significant asymptomatic transmission has been - it could also contribute to the development of a vaccine down the road.
Emory infectious disease expert Dr. Aneesh Mehta connected with 11Alive's Cheryl Preheim to discuss the significance of the antibody test. He explains how the test could help us find the right antibodies to develop a vaccine, and how it will help inform public health decision-making going forward.
- Cheryl: There has been incredible interest since the announcement of this antibody test already; I understand the phones have been ringing off the hook?
- Dr. Mehta: We have had a lot of interest from our patients and the healthcare community and we are excited about that.
- Cheryl: For people who don’t know as much about how it works; talk about why this test is so important as we move forward.
- Dr. Mehta: One of the things we had problems with early on, is that we couldn’t test everyone. Especially people with mild illness, because of the lack of testing to make the diagnosis. And now, we may be able to give them the answers whether they had it or not. Also, for our epidemiologists and our state health officials, researchers - who want to know how much spread of COVID-19 has been going on in Georgia communities - this will give us the answer. We can use this test not only for people who had symptoms but their family members and people they had contact with so we can finally understand how widespread this virus has been in Georgia.
- Cheryl: To reiterate what you are saying, this antibody test can be the first, best indication of how widespread this has been in the state of Georgia and across the country?
- Dr. Mehta: That is correct. This test allows us to test households and family members of people who may have had COVID-19 and also do some testing in the community and see how widespread this really was in Georgia and throughout the country.
- Cheryl: Right now, you are only doing the test on a limited group, like healthcare workers; but there are plans to try to expand quickly its reach.
- Dr. Mehta: Yes, we have multiple avenues to ramp up the test. As we go through the coming weeks, we will be able to offer this to more people and, more importantly, go to the next generation of COVID antibody testing. Not just to see if you have an antibody, but see the quality of the antibody that people have in them. In particular, look for an antibody called neutralizing antibodies - they are antibodies that can quickly kill the virus and remove it from the body; so we know patients are really well-protected at that point and time. We’ll see this test roll out and see other, better tests in the future.
- Cheryl: Being able to identify that - does that help you down the road as you are working to develop therapeutics and a vaccine?
- Dr. Mehta: That is a wonderful question. That is exactly right. If we figure out which patients have the highest quality antibodies, we can use that information not only to potentially make a therapeutic, but also potentially concentrate those antibodies in our products. Down the road, we can make synthetic antibodies that can be used in patients. That has been done in multiple other infections. And very importantly, that information can be used to help us further develop and enhance the vaccines that are being worked on, currently. So, there is a lot of avenues that this is going to be used for.
- Cheryl: For people who don’t live in the world of science and don’t necessarily have a reference for what a timeline looks like - from your perspective, the science is actually moving pretty fast?
- Dr. Mehta: Yes, I’ve been involved in multiple outbreaks in the past, and I have not seen the evolution or the change in clinical care, and also just the advancement of science, so quickly, as we are seeing in this outbreak. A lot of that is because of the wonderful new technology that we have, but also a lot of that is just the wonderful collaboration between people across the world and across the United States that we are working together and working hard together to get these answers for all of us.
- Cheryl: We have to be able to get to capacity in testing. That data drives decisions and that is why it is so critical.
- Dr. Mehta: Ideally, we would like to be able to test anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19. We are getting to that point, fortunately, now. We did have limitations at the beginning of this outbreak in Georgia. With great collaboration, now we have been able to ramp up. Here at Emory we are able to do 500 tests a day, so we are encouraging, now, healthcare providers to send us patients so we can get everyone who needs to be tested, tested. If we have that data of who is positive and who is negative, then we can really better understand in real time what is going on across Georgia communities. That will really help us plan what we need to do in terms of social distancing and help us plan for what we need to do to get back to normal life. Without that data, we will be making decisions, sort of, with just ideas, not the solid scientific evidence to back up those decisions.
- Cheryl: And the antibody test is so critical because you can go back to those people who, in early March, had classic symptoms of COVID-19 but could not get a test. So they did not have a specific positive result to get on the confirmed case list.
- Dr. Mehta: That is exactly right. The antibody test will help us further develop the total number of cases that we have here in our communities. I have a list of patients that I am hopefully going to bring back for testing. They just had such mild symptoms that with the limited number of tests we had, we could not test them. I’m confident at least a few of them had COVID-19, and I would like to let them know, and also for our sake to know who had it and who didn’t. It will really help our state epidemiologists and health officials make these decisions as far as planning for the future.
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