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U of M, Mayo Clinic testing provides hope for Minnesota in COVID-19 fight

Both institutions are in the process of preparing to deploy the tests to the public.

Governor Tim Walz wants to see a dramatic increase in Minnesota's COVID-19 testing capacity and there are now two marquee institutions preparing to make tens of thousands of tests available daily. 

While the Mayo Clinic has the capacity to do up to 8,000 molecular diagnostic tests and 10,000 serology tests per day, the University of Minnesota announced Thursday that it too is "preparing" to run approximately 10,000 of each test daily across Minnesota. 

"Combined, these tests will identify Minnesotans who currently have COVID-19; those who have previously contracted COVID-19 and are now assumed to be immune to it; and those who remain at risk for contracting COVID-19," the U of M said in a release. 

To help implement the testing plan, the university is asking lawmakers for $20 million, estimating that the combined cost to perform a diagnostic test and a serology test will be $25-$35 per person.

A molecular diagnostic test, also known as a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test (created by the U of M), is done via nasal or throat swab and can diagnose if a person currently has COVID-19. The serology test is a blood test that can find the presence of antibodies to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), indicating that a person was previously infected. 

When exactly the U of M and Mayo Clinic will begin testing 10,000 patients per day isn't known, though Gov. Walz said Wednesday that he wants to "start seeing pretty significant results within the next week or so."

Dr. Elitza Theel, director of Infectious Diseases Serology Laboratory at the Mayo Clinic, tells Bring Me The News that Mayo is in the process of implementing a "systematic rollout to its clients and partners" that will "ensure optimal turnaround times for the serology test." 

"What we are learning is that many institutions are excited about serologic testing, however they are in the process of determining how best to utilize the results," Dr. Theel said. 

Mayo Clinic Health System has partner clinics in more than 30 southern Minnesota cities, including dozens in Wisconsin and a few in Iowa. 

The U of M test would also be made widely available in the Twin Cities metro area and northward into east-central Minnesota and onto the Iron Range. You can find a list of all M Health Fairview providers here.  

What is clear based on what the Mayo and the Walz Administration has been saying is that while the testing capacity may be available, the challenge of making it available statewide means it's not as simple as flipping off the "Stay at Home" order switch.

"I do want to remind folks, it's not going to immediately look like it did before," said Walz. "I get it. I wish we could stop this today. I wish I could say it's magically over and we can all go back to work, we can all go down to the restaurant or whatever. But that will kill people, and it will in the long run hurt our economy at the same time." 

U of M, Mayo Clinic serology tests are quite accurate

Walz says many of the 70 or so antibody tests going to market nationwide are "worthless," but that's not the case with Mayo's test. 

The Mayo tells BMTN that it's 95 percent accurate in patients more than 14 days after illness, about 40 percent in patients 8-14 days after illness, and 0 percent in patients less than 7 days of illness.

"This is why serologic testing is not recommended to be used as a marker of recent infection, and rather has a role to play in identifying individuals who have been infected in the past," Dr. Theel explained.

In layman's terms, that means the more time that has passes since becoming infected, the more accurate the test will be. Mayo notes that a serology test needs to be done a minimum of 11-14 days after the patient is symptomatic. Testing too early can result in a false negative. 

The U of M says its antibody test is also highly sensitive. The Star Tribune reports that it was highly accurate in identifying antibodies "in all patients who had been infected at least 15 days," but less accurate when testing patients within 10 days of infection.

Just as important is the fact that the serologic test from both institutions doesn't rely on outside vendors for chemicals (called reagents) that detect infection. That means Minnesota won't fall into a bidding war with other states or countries around the world in an already overwhelmed supply chain. 

It is possible that the federal government could use the Defense Production Act and force Mayo and the U of M to distribute tests to other areas of need across the country, but Gov. Walz said he hopes that doesn't happen. 

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