Minnesota may be close to gaining a step on the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus through antibody testing that could detect if a person has already had COVID-19.
Antibody testing would allow Minnesotans who have been left to wonder if their respiratory symptoms were from COVID-19 or something else, and work is underway at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to bring such a test to market.
It's unclear how many Minnesotans have tried to get tested for the virus only to be denied due to an ongoing shortage in testing supplies and capacity, but it's likely a significant number given that tests have been restricted to healthcare workers, the hospitalized, and those in congregate living settings for weeks now.
Gov. Tim Walz said Monday that the hope with antibody testing would be to find out who might've been infected with the virus and now possibly has some level of immunity to it, making it safe for them to live a normal life amid the pandemic orders that have shuttered businesses and kept Minnesotans under a stay-at-home order.
But there's one critical area of unknown: There is not enough data to guarantee that someone who had COVID-19 can't get it again.
"We don't know yet if that's the case. We don't if they can get it again yet," said Walz. "I think in most of these cases there would be a belief that a certain percentage of folks would be immune from that," thus helping determine "who wouldn't need to be quarantined" and "who could be out and not infecting others."
The Star Tribune reported on Monday that more verification of antibody tests is needed before researchers at the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic will be ready to go public with the tests, but they might gain enough confidence to move forward within a couple of weeks.
Limited antibody testing is already available in some states, including Alabama, where there are two screening locations in the City of Mobile. The antibody tests are taken on site and before a patient leaves they know if their immune system has been contacted by the virus.
Getting positive antibody tests would also help determine how deadly COVID-19 is. The case fatality rate in Minnesota can only be determined by the number of tests, confirmed cases and deaths, which as of Tuesday stands at 629 cases and 12 deaths, creating a fatality rate of 1.91 percent.
At the national level, there is a race to find out if antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients can be used to treat critically ill patients – with scientists at the University of Minnesota among those conducting such research.
"Using plasma or human antibodies to treat COVID-19 is an important strategy. It was used in 1918 with the influenza pandemic," said Dr. Gregory Poland, vaccine specialist at the Mayo Clinic. "Using plasma is a polyclonal approach. There are also laboratory methods by which you can make a monoclonal antibody, and both of those are going to be tried."
According to CBS News, blood from recovered patients contains antibodies that can fight the virus. Clinical testing is already underway at Houston Methodist Hospital and it will soon be happening at Mount Sinai in New York.
"We have some idea, partially from the 1918 influenza epidemic, that taking blood plasma from one person and giving it to another actually may improve outcomes," Mount Sinai Dr. Nicole Bouvier told CBS News.