Nevada State Public Health Laboratory implementing plan for limited antibody testing

Focus on public health population study to gain vital data to inform future clinical health usage

A scientist does testing at the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory.

NSPHL scientists will soon begin to gather critical data needed before antibody tests are made widely available for clinical use. Photo by Brin Reynolds/UNR Med. 

A more complete understanding of the role antibody tests can play in Nevada's fight against COVID-19 is taking shape. Scientists at the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory will soon begin to gather critical data needed before the tests are made widely available for clinical use.

Unlike polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that detect active viral infection in individuals, antibody tests - also known as serological tests - confirm suspected cases of COVID-19 after the fact, and may be a measure of immunity for those who have been infected and recovered from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Antibody tests can also help to gauge the spread of the virus throughout the state.    

As reported on April 24, the NSPHL is in the process of validating a limited supply of antibody tests using biotechnology manufactured by Abbott. The test received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for diagnostic and research purposes. 

Once validated, Mark Pandori, Ph.D., director of the NSPHL, says the lab will launch studies of the use of the test for public health purposes, working with health districts and the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine to gather populational-level information about this pandemic's scale in Nevada. The results of these studies are critical before distributing the test to clinicians for clinical and patient use.  

"We do not currently know what clinical value these antibody tests have, so we have a lot of work to do before the tests are ready for clinical use, whether they are used as point-of-care rapid diagnostic tests or lab-based tests," said Pandori. "The first priority has to be to utilize these antibody tests to gather public health information. Since neither we, nor anyone at the moment, knows what a positive result means with regard to actual clinical "immunity" to SARS-CoV-2, we could not properly advise patients, nor the physicians caring for them.  At the moment, all that we really know from a positive test is that the patient has been infected."  

Pandori notes that SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, so it is too early to know if antibodies will result in full clinical protection, and for how long that protection will last. Results from studies across the country suggest the presence of antibodies may indicate some level of immunity, but more data are needed before physicians and patients can be properly counseled.  

What is clear, however, is that the availability of antibody tests is a big step forward for the state of Nevada, and can be a valuable public health data tool that will enable the NSPHL and participating health care partners to evaluate how the antibody tests contribute to disease surveillance, clinical therapeutics and potential return-to-work screenings.

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Monday May 4, 2020 @ 12:00 PM