ROCHESTER, Minn. — Every day more and more people infected with the novel coronavirus are recovering, but because of a testing shortage many of them still have no idea they had the virus.
By next week, the Mayo Clinic hopes to begin changing that with the help of a blood test that will help determine who has recovered and might have immunity.
For weeks, state leaders have warned that confirmed cases of coronavirus represent just a fraction of what is really out there. Tests are still severely limited by shortages in everything from cotton swabs to the reagent chemicals that labs need to process samples.
But there is growing hope that a blood antibody test will soon help Minnesota play catch up.
"Should that become a possibility, to have a dependable and verified antibody test, I think we would be very interested in partnering," said Governor Tim Walz on Thursday.
The Mayo Clinic might soon be that partner. After spending three weeks, evaluating 5 different antibody tests, researchers at the Mayo say they can now reliably detect whether a person has ever been infected with the novel coronavirus.
"Early next week we hope to have the test available for clinicians to order and to start using," said Elitza Theel, PhD.
The antibody tests will not replace the current, molecular tests, widely used to confirm coronavirus cases as they show symptoms.
"The antibody tests look at our immune response to the virus, so it takes many days," Theel said. "Typically, 8, 9, 10, 11 days in some cases to detect an immune response to the virus."
Despite the wait, the antibody tests could be critical to helping for a variety of reasons. For one, once antibodies are detected, the plasma of a COVID-19 survivor could be donated to someone infected as part of an experimental treatment.
The results could also be critical for people with essential jobs.
"Potentially to help redeploy healthcare workers and other individuals back into the workforce," Theel said. "So there are multiple potential uses. It's an important test from a public health perspective."
It's also important because unlike the current tests, Theel says there are fewer supply chain problems that might slow it down.
"We don't need swabs, we just need regular collection tubes," she said. "It's a high-throughput test, but the re-agents are much more widely available, so it won't be as big of a problem as molecular testing."
Theel says it will still take a couple weeks to build up kits and expand tests beyond Mayo facilities, but according to the Minnesota Department of Health, state leaders are watching closely and eagerly waiting.
"We absolutely will be intending to put that to use as soon as we can," said Minnesota Health Commissioner, Jan Malcolm.
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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.