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Minnesota researchers developing COVID-19 antibody test

The University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic are developing antibody tests that would tell whether a person has had COVID-19.

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota — Antibody testing could help us track the spread of COVID-19 and give us a better idea of when the country has reached herd immunity, according to experts. 

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and at Mayo Clinic are busy developing antibody tests that would tell whether a person had ever been infected with SARS-CoV-2—the virus responsible for COVID-19. 

"To track the spread of the virus through the country, we need to know who has been infected and since some people are infected and don't really show symptoms, we really don't know if they've been infected. So this antibody test can tell us about that," said Dr. Marc Jenkins, director of the Center for Immunology at the University of Minnesota. 

The testing is not meant to diagnose current COVID-19 patients as it takes many days to build up antibodies. But Jenkins said even if people were infected months ago, they would still have antibodies in their blood. 

"Usually when you have antibodies that means you have immunity and so that could tell us about this concept of herd immunity," Jenkins said. 

Once someone gets COVID-19, it's unclear how long immunity lasts. 

But the tests could help government officials when deciding when to lift certain restrictions. It could also help people decide when to go back to work. 

"It could give healthcare workers some peace of mind... knowing whether they have antibodies or not," Jenkins said. 

Antibody testing could also help identify who could donate their blood. Right now, blood donation centers are collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. 

Houston Methodist became the first academic medical center in the U.S. to be approved by the FDA to transfuse donated plasma to critically-ill patients with COVID-19. 

At the U of M, testing is still in the early stages. 

"Our early results look good but we're far from being able to employ that test. So we have to do a lot more positive and negative samples to prove the test can tell the difference and then the test has to be moved into a clinical laboratory via an FDA-approved process," Jenkins said. 

According to Dr. Elitza Theel, Mayo's antibody test should be ready for a first round of testing after the first week of April. But Mayo said that does not mean it will be broadly available. 

While this type of testing is being developed around the world, Jenkins said it's important to develop a local antibody testing capacity in Minnesota to make sure we have access to them. 

He said, "I think our piece of the puzzle is to provide that capacity here in Minnesota for Minnesotans." 

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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.

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