CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa hospitals now running antibody coronavirus tests

Serology testing can help ID plasma donors, track infection rates

Medical assistant Katrina Rogers opens a biohazard bag used to seal coronavirus test swab specimens at a temporary pre-p
Medical assistant Katrina Rogers opens a biohazard bag used to seal coronavirus test swab specimens at a temporary pre-procedure screening facility at the Family Medicine Clinic of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Monday, April 20, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa Health Care now has the in-house ability to test for COVID-19 antibodies as a way of determining whether a person already has been infected with the novel coronavirus.

The campus’ new serology testing process is “highly accurate,” according to UIHC, which will run its tests using two commercially-available platforms recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration: one from DiaSorin, an Italian diagnostic test company; and another from Roche, a global diagnostic firm with U.S. headquarters in Indiana.

The platforms were chosen for their “high degree of accuracy,” according to UIHC researchers, who completed a “thorough validation of the tests’ performance.” All serology samples that are positive via one method will be tested by the other, “to further lower risk of false positive results.”

“Making sure the tests have very high levels of specificity (over 99 percent) helps to minimize the number of false positive tests,” according to a UIHC news release about its new in-house antibody capabilities.

Antibody testing adds to the UIHC suite of tools for diagnosing and tracking COVID-19, which has infected more than 24,000 Iowans to date, resulting in 653 deaths. UI Health Care for months has been testing — on its campus — patients presently sick with COVID-19, reporting a positivity rate of 11 percent to date.

The state’s only academic medical center — also at the forefront of coronavirus-related research — has treated 229 total inpatients, with 15 currently in the hospital. As of Monday, 105 UIHC employees had reported positive COVID-19 tests.

The hospital for weeks has been offering as COVID-19 treatment for its inpatients the drug Remdesivir, recently authorized for emergency use, and convalescent plasma from individuals who’ve recovered from COVID-19 and have developed antibodies.

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Earlier this month, UIHC officials told The Gazette the campus had recruited 45 plasma donors and treated 49 COVID-19 patients using plasma — although numbers are continuing to grow.

A total of 44 patients had received Remdesivir at UIHC as of June 3 — with 31 of those patients discharged as of that date.

Hospital leadership on June 4 reported just one death among patients it had followed from initial diagnosis — or a 99.7 percent survival rate.

In addition to serving as an initial screen to detect whether antibodies are present in donated plasma, serology testing also can support research into how the virus spreads and who is most at-risk.

“The testing can also be used to survey specific groups of people to determine what proportion has been infected,” according to UIHC officials. “These serosurveys are useful for studying the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community or group.”

UIHC will be conducting such surveys, according to its COVID-19 website.

UI physicians will be able to order the newly-available in-house serology test — which involves a blood draw. The process is fully-automated, giving the campus the ability to run at least 300 samples a day “with the results available that same day, often within one hour of the sample arriving in the laboratory.”

The UIHC lab — with its current supplies — will be able to run about 2,000 tests total initially, “with more becoming available as the companies produce more testing supplies,” according to Matthew Krasowski, vice chair for UIHC Clinical Pathology and Laboratory Services.

Antibodies typically take one to three weeks to develop after a person’s initial infection, meaning serology tests aren’t used for recently-infected patients or those just starting to show symptoms.

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And although UIHC has had good outcomes with its plasma-treated patients, according to officials, they’ve stressed science hasn’t yet confirmed the benefit from COVID-19 antibodies.

“It’s important to note that we don’t yet know if antibodies will provide protective immunity against COVID-19,” Krasowski said in a statement.

UIHC didn’t immediately provide clarity on who can get tested for COVID-19 antibodies.

The campus — which constantly is updating its COVID-19 practices and procedures, including testing criteria — recently broadened its requirements for a standard coronavirus test to include all inpatients, regardless of symptoms. The campus also now will test any patient with COVID-19 symptoms, regardless of whether the person is in a high-risk population or over a certain age.

As for its serology guidance on the UIHC COVID-19 website, the campus reports patients don’t need to be referred to its system for antibody tests as “COVID-19 serological testing is now available to any provider in the United States.”

Patients who are referred to UIHC and require coronavirus antibody testing, though, can get it.

The test costs $125, according to the hospital, which notes, “We cannot yet determine whether (or when) third-party payers will cover COVID-19 serologic testing.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.