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Will antibody testing help get people back to work?

As the battle between the federal government and states heats up over reopening the economy, antibody testing is being touted as one way to get people back to work. But some researchers at the forefront of developing an accurate antibody test say it’s too early to pin all our hopes on the technique. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The discussion about when to reopen the economy often comes down to testing for who has antibodies against COVID-19. But some researchers at the forefront of developing an accurate test say it's too early to pin all our hopes on science finding the right test soon. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simon Ostrovsky has our report.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    This is the type of testing site that's widely available across the country now. The testing kits that they have here can only tell you if you've currently got COVID-19. But researchers want to develop antibody tests that will be able to say if you've ever had the disease and hopefully that you've reached a certain level of immunity and it's safe to go back to work.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    A team of scientists from the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard and MIT are working overtime to create just such an easy to use test — known as an assay — for COVID-19 antibodies that could be mass produced.

  • Galit Alter:

    That really is the ultimate dream of where we're going to go with this assay.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Although many coronavirus antibody tests exist already, the current generation can only tell you if you've been sick before, not if you've achieved immunity.

  • Galit Alter:

    These are the labs where we do all the work and as you can see these are all multiple BL2 containment facilities.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Galit Alter, who is leading the Ragon Institute's Project, says she's a month to half a year away from having a test that could tell us if it's safe for people who've already been infected with the coronavirus to go back out in public. That's a timeline that's shorter than what it'll take to develop a vaccine but a longer wait than President Donald Trump's administration would like to re-start the economy.

  • Galit Alter:

    People would like to have these point-of-care tests available to them at the pharmacy where basically they can test if they have antibody or not and the concern is, you know, that having antibodies is not necessarily going to be a certificate of protection.

  • Michael Mina:

    Before we jump on that boat and say that if you are positive for antibodies you can go back to work we have to better understand what exactly the antibody test means.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Michael Mina is a Harvard Professor who is also working on the project. He said it's just as important to find out whether people who have antibodies can still be spreading the virus.

  • Michael Mina:

    We really want to create a test that's looking for very specific antibodies that have a chance of reflecting whether or not somebody is truly protected.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In order to figure that out, researchers are going to need to track recovering COVID patients for weeks or even months, sampling their antibody levels periodically along the way to correlate the readings to their ongoing state of health and the health of those around them. The institute is in the early stages of this work tracking groups of patients from hospitals in Massachusetts. Researchers though are uneasy about the message the public is getting from the Federal Government.

  • Donald Trump:

    They have immunity if they've had the virus. A lot of them don't even know if they've had it.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Alter is concerned people could come to believe that simply having a test that shows they've had the virus will lead them to believe they're now immune. That's something that's still unknown, and she doesn't want members of the public to get a false sense of security that might lead to dangerous behavior; spreading the virus even further.

  • Galit Alter:

    And that's why returning antibody data back to people has to be returned with that type of counseling associated with that report so that people understand 'yeah, you have an IgG titer but that doesn't give you carte blanche that you can go back to work because you could still be a super spreader.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The state of Massachusetts is taking a conservative stance on the promise of antibody testing and said it is reviewing its potential. In a statement to Newshour Weekend, the state's department of public health said antibody testing "is still an area of active scientific investigation and we still don't have a very good understanding of the antibody response and its temporal relationship to infection or to immunity. We certainly don't yet know the duration of immunity to COVID-19. The good news is victims of past coronavirus outbreaks have developed immunity. Robert Davey is a Boston University researcher who is working to find a drug therapy for COVID-19.

  • Robert Davey:

    There's a lot of evidence that people who have been infected by other viruses similar to this have a sustained immune responses, have good antibody levels for a long period of time after infection and those protect them against being reinfected by the same virus, but we have to learn, we're still in the learning phase to know if that's true for this particular virus, but it is likely.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    In the meantime, the Ragon is partnering with MIT and Harvard's Broad Institute to ramp its antibody testing capacity up to 10,000 samples a day in the hopes of conducting a study of New England and beyond that will tell us what percentage of the population has experienced the coronavirus. But Alter says much more needs to be done for them to be successful.

  • Galit Alter:

    It's this issue that there's no coordination from the government to bring the right thought leaders together, to bring this closer to the commercial partners who can make these types of tools at a level that can really respond to the needs of the population.

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