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How Do COVID-19 Antibody Tests Work And Why Are They So Important?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Researchers in Minnesota have been hard at work developing a new weapon against the coronavirus outbreak - COVID-19 antibody tests. Experts say they could be key to fighting the disease.

So, how do they work? And, why are they so important? Good Question.

"It's really important to know who's been infected and how widespread the infection is," said Dr. Marc Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology at the University of Minnesota.

It was a few weeks ago when Dr. Jenkins started to worry about the shortage of testing materials for COVID-19. That's when he and his team went to work on creating a different kind of test for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The University of Minnesota researchers made a blood test that would detect antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. It would tell people, often after they recover, if they had the novel coronavirus.

"It's going to take a week after the infection," said Dr. Jenkins. "It takes time for the immune system to detect the virus, ramp it up, make the antibodies -- this test is not useful for early diagnosis."

Right now, there are dozens of similar COVID-19 antibody tests already on the market. Dr. Jenkins and his team are using a coronavirus protein purified at the University of Minnesota to create its test. They are currently in the trial phase and expect to send their results to federal regulators within the next two weeks.

"When we're in this period and demand is so high, I think we really have to consider local expertise, local capability," he said.

The use of antibody tests are an important factor in better understand how much of the whole population is infected, especially given this virus can exhibit limited or no symptoms in some cases.

"Having a test gives us a sense of the prevalence in the community," said Dr. Elitza Theel, director of the Infectious Diseases Lab at the Mayo Clinic. "It helps us determine case fatality rate when you have a true denominator of infected people."

The Mayo Clinic has been evaluating commercially antibody tests. Dr. Theel says the Mayo researchers have settled on one test and expect to be begin using it next week. It won't be widely available to the general population. Mayo is still in the process of determining how the test would be used.

Experts aren't entirely sure that a person has immunity from COVID-19 once they've recovered from the disease. But, both Dr. Jenkins and Dr. Theel point to previous studies on coronaviruses as well as research on primates with SARS-CoV-2.

"I think it's likely that there at least be some short-term immunity," said Dr. Jenkins.

On Monday, Governor Tim Walz made mention of why antibody testing would be valuable in the fight against COVID-19.

"If we had that and you had natural immunity from this certainly that gives us the ability of who wouldn't need to be quarantined, who could be out and is not infecting others," Walz said.

Dr. Jenkins said this kind of information would help inform policymakers, as well as employers and employees making decisions on going to work. It would also help people better know when they'd be available to help others who are vulnerable.

"They probably psychologically could be in a better position to do that knowing that they have immunity," Dr. Jenkins said.

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