Coronavirus molecule image

This illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). 

Centra Health has begun offering COVID-19 antibody tests to patients in the Lynchburg region, a move that could help local health officials develop a clearer picture of the scale of the coronavirus pandemic.

Testing for antibodies, which is performed by taking a blood sample, potentially can show if a patient previously was infected with the novel coronavirus, even among those who showed no symptoms of COVID-19.

Antibody testing “may not be of much use for clinicians caring for individual patients, but it could be helpful for us epidemiologists in determining the fraction of our various populations who have been exposed to the virus — especially in helping us count those cases who became infected but never got sick, or those who were mildly ill but never got tested, and those who early on simply didn’t have access to testing,” Dr. Kerry Gateley, the director of the Central Virginia Health District, said in an email Friday.

Antibodies are produced by the immune system to help fight infectious pathogens and can remain in the body well after a patient has recovered from the disease. But it is unclear if coronavirus antibodies ensure immunity from further infection.

Gateley said if the antibodies produced to fight the novel coronavirus function similarly to the antibodies produced to fight similar coronaviruses, such as the viruses responsible for SARS and MERS, they may provide immunity for as long as a year, if not more.

Still, the uncertainty around the relatively new virus means people who test positive for antibodies should assume — at least for now — they are vulnerable to reinfection, according to Gateley.

Centra did not disclose the criteria patients are required to meet before undergoing antibody testing. According to the health system, a test must be ordered by a physician before it can be administered.

In a news release, the health system — which has 500,000 people in its coverage area spanning Lynchburg and surrounding counties, Farmville and Pittsylvania County — said its physicians still will rely on traditional tests to determine if a patient is suffering from an active infection.

“It can take days for an antibody response to be generated by an individual to COVID-19 infection,” Centra spokesperson Diane Ludwig said in the release. “Because of this, a negative antibody test does not mean that an individual is infection free.”

As of Wednesday, Centra has conducted 3,102 tests for COVID-19 and confirmed 174 positive cases. The health system did not provide figures for completed antibody tests.

On Friday, the Virginia Department of Health, whose numbers can differ from Centra’s because of reporting timelines, listed a total of 154 cases of COVID-19 in the greater Lynchburg area, 68 of whom are city residents. Two local patients have died from the disease.

Eight patients who’ve been confirmed to have COVID-19 are currently in Lynchburg General Hospital’s intensive care unit, and five of those people are intubated via a ventilator. Four additional COVID-19 patients are receiving non-ICU care in the hospital’s 36-bed pulmonary unit, which has been designated for COVID-19 patients during the pandemic.

To date, nine Centra employees have tested positive for the virus, according to the health system.

Centra has selected Abbott Laboratory, an Illinois-based health devices company, to conduct the antibody testing.

Health companies across the country have been scrambling to develop antibody tests, and while production quickly is ramping up, researchers have raised concerns some tests could be providing incorrect results.

For example, a team of California-based researchers and physicians found late last month of 14 tests commercially available, only three provide consistent results.

Centra officials, however, said they are confident Abbott’s tests are highly accurate.

An Abbott spokesperson pointed to an independent study conducted by the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle which found the company’s tests had a specificity rate of 99.9% and a sensitivity rate of 100%, meaning false positives and false negatives are exceedingly unlikely.

Centra is optimistic the tests may prove to be a crucial factor in arresting the pandemic and putting the country on the road to relative normalcy.

“There is much we are still learning about the Coronavirus and antibody testing can potentially help us better understand the unknowns of this virus,” Ludwig said.

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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