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COVID-19 antibody testing at UW Virology may be a step toward finding a vaccine

University of Washington Virology will run up to 4,000 coronavirus antibody tests a day, and hopes to increase that to 12,000 to 14,000 tests a day.

SEATTLE — University of Washington Virology announced today they are starting a clinical trial to see if a blood test can show if a person has had the coronavirus.

This test is not only helping doctors understand more about the virus that causes COVID-19, but it also is a step in the direction of creating a vaccine.

The blood test identifies antibodies in a person’s system.

“We’re looking for the antibodies that the body makes when it has been fighting off this virus,” said Dr. Keith Jerome, who is the head of UW Virology.

This is different from the nasal or throat swab test which looks for the live virus. The swab test would show if a person currently is infected with the coronavirus, but it doesn't show if the person beat the disease.

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However, if a person was sick and is now recovered, the blood test would find antibodies which would be evidence that the person had the coronavirus, Jerome said.

“If you’re sick now you need the test that looks for the virus. This (blood) test is most useful to identify those people who have had the infection previously and are better,” Jerome said.

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The new blood test must by ordered by a doctor or healthcare provider.

A sample of blood is drawn and sent to the UW Virology lab. 

Knowing who had the virus will help in understanding how it spreads and also in answering the question of whether a person can catch coronavirus more than once.  

“In other viruses these antibodies are protective, you won’t get re-infected. The genetic diversity of this virus is limited currently. But clearly just from doing this test we don’t happen to know the answer to that question definitively, but this will be the test that generates that data that allows us to understand those important questions,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of at the lab.

The next big feat for the medical community is creating a vaccine. Jerome said data from this test will help in that process.

“What’s next is really turning the tables on this virus, coming up with therapies for people who are infected now, and ideally coming up with a vaccine that’s going to prevent people from getting infected in the future,” Jerome said.

Greninger said that the process has already begun. 

“It’s going on right now. Many of the trials have already started and many of them are under development and we are receiving samples in the lab right now from these trials,”

Officials with UW Virology say the people who should be taking these tests are those at the front lines and at most risk for exposure, including EMTs, police officers and grocery store employees.

UW Virology said that it has sufficient supplies for the amount of testing it expects to do. The laboratory will start with running up to 4,000 tests a day, but  in a few weeks researchers hope to be able to run 12,000 to 14,000 a day.

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