Copley Hospital helps assess antibody testing

Published: Apr. 14, 2020 at 4:27 PM EDT
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A Vermont hospital is part of an experiment that could help health care workers quickly figure out whether someone has already had the coronavirus and recovered.

At Copley Hospital in Morrisville, they're doing COVID-19 testing. They use drive-up testing for people who are referred with symptoms, but inside the hospital they're also doing another kind of test on their staff. This one will hopefully lead to a better diagnostic tool.

Copley staff on Tuesday volunteered to get their fingers pricked to see if they had antibodies for COVID-19. Miranda Wescom was among them. Hoping that I do. That would be nice," she said.

She hasn't had any symptoms, but also knows she could have been infected and not known it. "It would kind of ease my mind if I did, honestly. I mean -- not that I would ever want it, but if I've had it already, that's great," she said.

The results show up in about 10 minutes. The hospital is seeing how accurate these tests are in identifying two kinds of antibodies -- the ones you have while you're infected and the ones found in your body after you recover.

"We're essentially testing the test," said Donald Dupuis, Copley's chief medical officer.

He says because of the FDA's emergency authorization, they're allowed to run tests, like Ray Biotech's, that haven't undergone the normal levels of scientific scrutiny. The company wants feedback on how well their tests work. That's why they're being used on hospital staff, not the public.

"We really don't want to seem like we're giving useful diagnostic information to patients before we know whether we're really giving useful diagnostic information to patients," Dupuis said.

I volunteered to get one of the antibody tests, and theoretically since I've had no symptoms, we should see a "negative" result. However, one of the reasons to do these tests is to figure out whether people may have been asymptomatic and been carriers without even knowing it. Mine was negative.

But we also tested a known COVID-19 case, WCAX photographer Shelly Holt Allen, who has since recovered. Her test, as expected, came back positive for the type of antibodies your body has after you get better. But what science still hasn't proven for COVID-19 is how much protection those antibodies will give her down the line.

"I certainly hope it's a shield against getting the virus again, but we don't really know that yet. And even if that's true, we don't know how long that will last for," Dupuis said.

What's next for the tests is to test the accuracy of the results. For some of the tests, it will mean doing some traditional PCR testing -- like with the swab -- to confirm the results. For others, like Shelly's, it'll mean taking plasma and sending it to the Mayo Clinic which will then run a totally separate test on it to see whether the results of these tests inside were accurate.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine Monday indicated he wants to see a better test than the one Copley is using to be widely available. The state is still trying to figure out which antibody test it will choose and how to implement it. We are expecting answers to that from a working group later this week.

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