Vt. task force to look at merits of antibody testing

Published: Apr. 13, 2020 at 4:00 PM EDT
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Tests are coming out on the market that promise answers to the common questions -- did I get the coronavirus without knowing it? And, do I have any immunity to it?

A finger prick followed by a few minutes wait will be able to tell whether your blood has antibodies that could protect you in some way from COVID-19. Some states like California have already started testing residents, but Vermont is taking a more cautious approach for now.

"I will continue to act based on the data and science and working closely with the experts to make the best possible decisions I can for Vermonters," said Governor Phil Scott Monday. He reiterated the state's decisions, including their testing strategy, will be backed by science.

Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says he formed a new working group over the weekend to look at ramping up antibody testing here. "Serologic testing is clearly going to be an important part of our future strategy -- a critical part -- I would say," he said. "We want to move on this front as fast as possible."

But Levine said their primary focus is -- and will continue to be -- PCR testing. That's where a swab is used in a patient's nose and mouth to see whether they are currently ill with the coronavirus. "Right now at this stage of the pandemic, it's much more important for us to know who is actively infected," he said.

Levine also indicated he has concerns over the accuracy of antibody tests. He says there are hundreds on the market, and only one approved by the FDA. And if a test has 80 percent validity, it means one in five results is still wrong. "To me, that's not a very good test," he said.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: What scientific evidence will you need to see before you give them the stamp of approval?

Dr. Mark Levine: All I want is to know what the best test is out there that has undergone the scrutiny of the scientific community and that we can rely on.

While he said there are uses for antibody tests, like getting health care workers back on the job sooner, prioritizing people for vaccines, and mapping community immunity to the virus, he's concerned false information could hurt their efforts. "We want to make sure we are only doing good and doing no harm, and it's amazing how little it takes in screening to do harm," Levine said.

There are still many unanswered questions including which test to use, who should get the test, and when they would be available to Vermonters. The working group is supposed to come up with recommendations on those by late Thursday.

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