After several weeks of social distancing, many people want to know when businesses and communities can safely reopen again. The answer largely depends on the ability to identify those who’ve developed immunity to COVID-19, while also quickly isolating new cases of the disease to halt additional outbreaks.University of Minnesota researchers are getting closer to helping Minnesota solve these challenges with the development of a COVID-19 antibody test, which is now in use at our Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul – the state’s only hospital dedicated to caring for COVID-19 patients. M Health Fairview also plans to work with our university partners as they request funding to ramp up both diagnostic testing and antibody testing for COVID-19.
The new antibody test measures whether a person has developed an immune response from exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. It is a blood test given days after exposure, when the immune system has developed a significant number of antibodies. It can also be given to those who believe they were exposed to COVID-19 but had no symptoms or only mild ones. Early evidence suggests that up to 80% of people have only mild illness or no symptoms after being exposed to COVID-19.
The M Health Fairview and University of Minnesota partnership allowed us to begin offering the antibody test almost immediately after it was developed. Because we currently have a limited supply, we have first prioritized tests for frontline workers. Our healthcare workers who provide care to COVID-19 patients at Bethesda Hospital have the option to take the test immediately.
As our testing supply increases, we will expand voluntary testing to healthcare workers across the M Health Fairview system to help inform our research and better understand the implications of the test’s results.
We don’t yet know how quickly immunity develops, how long it lasts, whether people who have contracted COVID-19 can become ill a second time, or how many antibodies a person needs for sufficient protection against contracting COVID-19 again. Some evidence suggests there may be people who contract COVID-19 but don’t generate protective antibodies. These are all questions we still need to answer – both here in Minnesota and in partnership with researchers around the globe.
As we gather more information, we’ll be able to expand to a third phase, building scientific evidence and capacity to provide antibody testing as part of our diagnosis and treatment process.
We anticipate this testing will be a component of our state’s plan to re-open our economy and allow more people to safely return to work and other activities. Because our test is made in-house at the University of Minnesota, it means we’re not constrained by global availability – as we are with COVID-19 diagnostic tests.
We’re proud of the research and health system partnership that has enabled our teams to bring this important test to our community. In the weeks ahead, we hope to help our region better understand when we can begin easing restrictions while continuing to protect our most vulnerable citizens.