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Mayo Clinic, U of M say they can help achieve testing 'moonshot'

Both providers are now testing patients for coronavirus antibodies and say expansion is coming fast.

MINNEAPOLIS — Of all the coronavirus numbers available on Minnesota's online dashboard, Governor Walz says testing is the most important to restarting our economy.

"Instead of doing several hundred or a thousand a day, we start building up that capacity of 5,000 so we start to know (where we stand)," Walz said on Tuesday.

But the state can't do it alone. The lab at the Minnesota Department of Health has processed fewer than 9,500 of the more than 39,000 samples so far. The rest have come from external labs run by providers like the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and others. 

Now, those same providers are also rapidly adding critical antibody/blood tests.

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"It's the way that we can understand who has been exposed to the virus," said Marc Jenkins, Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Immunology, which developed the latest blood test being deployed in Minnesota.

"The test has basically gone live today," Jenkins said.

The test takes just four hours to process. More importantly, at a time when many tests are limited by supply shortages, the key component of the U of M test is a protein that is produced right on campus.

"It's the viral antigen that we use, as a probe to look for antibodies. We think we have enough protein to do 100,000 of these tests," said Jenkins.

Who gets priority first, for this test?

According to Jenkins, "we're ready to deploy it amongst U of M healthcare workers. People who are directly working with patients."

The U of M joins the Mayo Clinic, which rolled out its own blood test last week.

"For the first few days we really focused on making it available to the Mayo Clinic practice," said Dr. Bill Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories. "Now we do have a capacity to do 10,000 tests per day and we're looking to double or even triple that."

Though the numbers are large, they represent testing being done for hospitals nationwide, meaning a Minnesota moon shot will require even more. 

"I'm asking for them to try and get this done in days and weeks, not months," Governor Walz said. "Because people are getting frustrated."

Even on a tight time frame, Dr. Morice says the Mayo Clinic will be able to help make it reality.

"That's something that is certainly within the realm of possibility, that's not a big stretch," Dr. Morice said.

Jenkins says the U of M is poised to do its part too.

"I think that's doable," Jenkins said. "We would have to ramp up our capacity by about 10 fold to do that. I've heard the number, about 2 million workers in Minnesota, and so we'd have to ramp up significantly, our capacity. That would be a huge challenge to test that many people, but it could be done."

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