In the rush to develop more accurate and quicker ways of testing people for COVID-19, researchers in South Carolina are volunteering their time to help ensure health care professionals have the testing supplies they need to stay safe.
While plenty of commercial labs are developing tests, researchers from Clemson University, MUSC and Prisma Health realized the need to validate existing testing methods in laboratory settings while also volunteering to develop additional antibody testing capacity for South Carolina.
"We know that, given the demand and everything that's going on, tests developed by commercial labs are probably going to be hard to get our hands on," said Caroline Brown, chief external affairs officer at MUSC.
The test they're working on detects antibodies that form in the blood of people who have been exposed to the novel coronavirus. Because of the presence of antibodies, it's thought these people would have a lowered chance of being re-infected, but Dr. Shikhar Mehrotra at MUSC said more research is required to know just how safe people with antibodies might be.
The benefit of testing for antibodies, Mehrotra said, is that it can find out whether people who never showed symptoms were exposed to the virus. The next step, he said, is finding out how many antibodies people are developing. Just because someone has antibodies doesn't mean they're immune to re-infection, and more research is needed to find out how many antibodies are needed to protect someone.
That's the lab work that these researchers are doing — they're going past what some commercially available test kits do.
"Those basically just tell you if they've had the virus, but they don't tell you how much of the antibodies they have," said Delphine Dean, of Clemson.
This information is key down the line, Dean said. Vaccines work by triggering the body's immune system to create antibodies, so it's essential to know how many antibodies people need in order to be protected from COVID-19.
While this lab testing is already underway, Terri Bruce and Ken Marcus at Clemson are working on producing quick response tests aimed at health care workers. These tests use a polymer film they've developed to filter a person's saliva, taking out the unnecessary elements and leaving only the virus behind for the test to detect, Marcus said.
Providing these tests to health care workers will allow easy, quick testing of the people who work on the front lines, risking their health every day. It could also show whether someone without symptoms had been exposed to the virus, preventing them from possibly spreading it further.
Part of what's so exciting about their work, Dean said, is they're doing the laboratory research while also developing point-of-care tools like these tests, when usually the lab work is done first. They're working to reach out to manufacturers and industry partners to help develop and produce the tests, but Mark Blenner at Clemson said between the partnering institutions they might have what they need to produce the tests themselves.
"We may not need an industry partner to help move this forward," he said. "We've got a bunch of dedicated, committed faculty and doctors donating their time and energy and we're not out here trying to make a profit off of it."
Dean echoed Blenner's excitement about the project, saying the staff isn't looking to make money off this because it's something that needs to be done for public health and safety.
"If we don't step up and do something, we'll have missed an opportunity, earlier on, to know what's happening in our state," Dean said. "If you had told me a month or so ago that I'd be working on this, through so many Zoom calls — I mean I do cool stuff, but I never thought I'd be doing this. ... We've never seen something like this in the state, but we've never seen COVID-19 before, either."