Stanford Scientists Create COVID-19 Antibody Test Which Could Help Alleviate Shelter-in-Place Orders

Scientists in the U.S. have created an antibody test which they say can reveal whether a person has been infected with the new coronavirus.

Created by a team at Stanford Medicine, the test can detect antibodies which the immune system creates to attack SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus which causes COVID-19 (not to be confused with the SARS virus). It takes two to three days to get results back, according to a statement by the institution.

The team used samples from COVID-19 patients and two-year-old blood plasma (therefore not containing SARS-CoV-2) as the control to verify the test.

Dr. Thomas Montine, professor and chair of pathology at the School of Medicine, explained in a statement that looking for antibodies in blood plasma "gives us a more comprehensive view of what's happening in an individual who is infected, or has been infected, with the virus."

Montine admitted the test "isn't a perfect tool, but it's one that I suspect we'll use to help devise protocols for unwinding shelter-in-place orders."

The approach could also help with investigating a potential COVID-19 treatment known as convalescent plasma therapy, where antibodies are taken for a person who has survived an illness, in this case COVID-19, and transferred to someone sick.

"That approach could be very important in this period when we don't have vaccines or other definitive therapies," said Montine.

Antibody tests are being developed worldwide, but they can vary in quality, Montine said. "We thought this was an urgent medical need, and the usual supply chains were unreliable, so we decided to build our own."

The test picks up what are known as IgM and IgG antibodies. While evidence suggests COVID-19 patients create the former in the early stages of infection, the latter are believed to be in abundance in the later stages and stick around longer in the body. But as the virus is so new, we don't know how long antibodies linger, Montine suggested.

As a serological test, the approach is different to screenings used to diagnose suspected COVID-19 patients, where a swab of respiratory secretions is taken from deep inside a person's nose to find SARS-CoV-2's genetic material.

Montine said the team has enough supplies to run the tests for six months, but are limited by the number of machines they have to run tests. "Ultimately, we aspire to provide serological testing to as many people in Northern California as we can," he said.

The researchers have applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization for their serological test, which Stanford Health Care launched on Monday.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn said the agency issued a policy in March: "to allow developers of certain serological tests to begin to market or use their tests once they have performed the appropriate evaluation to determine that their tests are accurate and reliable" At the time he said 70 developers had notified the agency their tests are available for use, but warned some creators are falsely claiming their methods are FDA approved or can diagnose COVID-19.

As shown in the Statista map below, people in almost every corner of the world have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Since the pandemic started late last year, more than 103,000 people have died in 1.7 million known cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. More than 378,800 people have survived.

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A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early April 9. More than 1.5 million people have been afflicted, over 346,000 of whom have recovered and over 93,000 of whom have died. Statista

What are known as serosurveys, where the blood of a group of people is tested for antibodies against infections, are being rolled out by organizations including the WHO.

But Dr. Peter Drobac, a physician and specialist in infectious diseases and public health at the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, previously told Newsweek: "We don't actually know much about immunity to the novel coronavirus yet, but early signs suggest that people who have recovered from COVID-19 are unlikely to be reinfected, at least in the short term.

"So knowing who has been infected can help determine who might safely go back to work or re-enter society, so to speak."

But he said "immunity certificates" floated in some countries which in theory would state whether a person is immune and could be used to decide who can go back to work are potentially "dangerous" as it's not clear whether a positive antibody test means a person is immune, or for how long.

"Imagine two employees of the same business, and one is allowed to come back because she has a certificate while the other has to remain out of work. Might you see people desperate to get back to work actively trying to get infected? Absolutely. Might you see people try to defraud the system to get a certificate even if they're still vulnerable to infection? Absolutely," Drobac said.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html)
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
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A laboratory worker, unrelated to the Stanford project, handles a biological sample at a drive-thru coronavirus testing centre in al-Khawaneej district of the gulf emirate of Dubai on April 9, 2020. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
Stanford Scientists Create COVID-19 Antibody Test Which Could Help Alleviate Shelter-in-Place Orders | Health