As COVID-19 antibody testing comes to northern Wisconsin, the medical community explains risks

Aspirus Wausau Hospital laboratory (Aspirus photo, used with permission)
Aspirus Wausau Hospital laboratory (Aspirus photo, used with permission)(WSAW)
Published: Apr. 23, 2020 at 7:17 PM CDT
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It took all of ten minutes for Captain Tyler Young with the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office to get his results back from a COVID-19 antibody test administered at his department on Thursday.

His result? Negative.

Also known as serology testing, antibody blood tests have picked up steam around the country this month as private labs rush to produce their own. It tests for the presence of proteins developed by the body to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and as such can help determine if an individual has had COVID-19 in the past.

In a testing effort organized in the community and hosted at the department, the Oneida County Sheriff’s Office paid for serology testing from ARCPoint Labs for any employee who wished to get tested Thursday. Cpt. Young told NewsChannel 7 that the lab, whose test has not been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration according to their website, explained to individuals that testing positive for antibodies could not prove immunity to COVID-19. For the OCSO where six have tested positive in their county for the disease, any information that could inform their ongoing operations—particularly their jail—was worthwhile.

“A jail is like a Petri dish,” Young said. “If we knew somebody possibly had antibodies…we could send over employees [to the jail] to help protect other employees and their families.”

Additionally, it could inform their role as community servants, he explained. If an employee tested positive for having had COVID-19 in the past, hospitals are encouraging those individuals to donate their plasma to help fight the disease.

“We could be giving plasma to help other people in our community,” Young said. “More information is more beneficial than less information.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease, has said antibody testing could prove a key component to reopening the country. “That’s going to be important when you think about getting people back into the workplace,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union show on Easter morning.

on serology testing released April 7, the FDA said testing would play a critical role in fighting COVID-19, which was why Vice President Mike Pence had called on the laboratory community to ramp up test development.

How does COVID-19 serology testing work?

COVID-19 antibody testing looks for proteins developed by the body as an immune response to an infection. That’s why serology testing would become important for identifying people previously infected by the disease, Aspirus Wausau Hospital laboratory director Deakin Washatko explained.

Serology testing differs from the molecular swab tests that look for current infections, as serology--often using blood from an individual--looks for antibodies that typically appear one to two weeks after infection,

“It can’t say if you truly have immunity or not,” Washatko warned.

Concerns about COVID-19 serology testing in the medical community

While serology testing holds future promise in the ongoing COVID-19 response, Washatko says there’s risks associated with many of the tests currently on the market. False positives as well as false negatives are a concern with quickly-produced tests, and many don’t have substantive research to determine their accuracy.

“They have not had intensive study by the FDA; a lot of these rapid tests that are available come from overseas like China and other countries,” Washatko said. “They have not been evaluated, and there’s not good data yet to say how accurate they are.”

—to be distinguished from full approval—for just four serology test manufacturers. But Washatko says there’s as many as 90 other tests in use with no FDA review.

“Those are the ones in particular that are really risky, because they have not had any type of study performed on them,” he noted. He showed NewsChannel 7 a China-manufactured test he’s currently evaluating in the AWH lab, where a drop of blood or serum and another chemical is added to a small stick, producing results after sitting for just a few minutes.

“This is such a simple test that it may not have accurate results,” he said. “This is what’s being shipped over to the U.S. by the millions right now.”

Based at AWH, Washatko guides labs across the Aspirus system and is leading a process evaluating rapid antibody testing kits manufactured in China, where many of the U.S. kits are arriving from. So far, he says, the data they’ve collected hasn’t been enough for them to feel confident using for Aspirus patients. AWH is also working with outside labs to provide antibody testing capabilities for Aspirus in the near future, as well as developing their own capabilities for in-house testing further down the road.

Judy Burrows with the Marathon County Health Department says that antibody testing should not eliminate social distancing and other preventative measures while health organizations continue to work to scale up molecular testing that looks for active infections.

“Right now we have a limited ability to provide testing to people that have symptoms,” she noted, citing the ongoing struggle for medical providers to secure the reagents needed to conduct swab testing. “Once we know they have the disease, we can help control the spread of the disease, so testing would be what we’re focused on right now.”

Ultimately, however, Washatko says serology testing is an important step to return to normal community operations.

“Not only would it tells us how broadly the COVID disease has been in our communities…but then also that reassurance that you may have some immunity to COVID, and you’re likely to not get sick again. Or, at least less sick, based on how immunity normally works with these types of respiratory illnesses.”

Editor's note: NewsChannel 7 reached out to ARCPoint Lab for more information on their testing capabilities in Wisconsin, but has not yet heard back.