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Antibody test coming to New Mexico

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Tests to see whether people have antibodies to the coronavirus and are possibly immune will be available in New Mexico in a week or so, health officials said Wednesday.

Dr. Richard Larson

The viral testing being done in the state determines whether people currently have COVID-19. An antibody, or serological, test shows whether someone has developed antibodies to the virus, which indicates they’ve already been exposed to it.

It is believed that most people exposed to the coronavirus don’t show symptoms, so such a test could give insight into how the virus has spread among those who didn’t know it, said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Larson predicted antibody testing will show that the virus is more widespread than current health department statistics indicate.

Studies from elsewhere in the country indicate it’s possible that more than 50 times as many people have antibodies to the virus compared with those who tested positive after developing symptoms, health officials said.

“I think we’re going to have a few hundred thousand people, if that holds up, who are immune in New Mexico,” Larson said.

A large-scale study based on antibody testing in Los Angeles County in California indicated between 221,000 and 442,000 adults had antibodies to the virus at a time when there were only 8,000 positive tests, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Larson discussed antibody testing at a virtual Albuquerque Economic Forum on Wednesday morning. And Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state officials talked about the test at a briefing in the afternoon.

“The (antibody testing) is critical in knowing everything we can about the prevalence of the virus, immunity to the virus and being able to assure consumers that, as we look at economic recovery, are you safe to go in to a grocery store or a business?” Lujan Grisham said during the briefing.

TriCore Reference Laboratories is working to get antibody testing validated and it could be up and running in seven to 10 days, Larson said. Lab officials didn’t return calls for comment Wednesday.

Dr. David Scrase, cabinet secretary for the Health and Human Services Department, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from serology test results. For example, he said, it isn’t known whether people who have antibodies are immune from the coronavirus, or how long that immunity would last.

“The antibody tests helps us understand our population better. … And it will allow us to make better decisions,” Scrase said.

The test could prove beneficial to hospitals, Larson said, if officials knew which of its workers were likely immune to the virus and could then care for patients.

He cautioned against allowing the “worried well” – those who really need no medical treatment but are seeking assurance – to be given immediate access to the tests and use limited resources once the tests are unveiled.

Both Scrase and Larson suggested tests not be used as a magic bullet for lifting stay-at-home instructions and opening up the economy.

“I think you can’t rely on it,” Larson said. “It will be useful, but it’s not going to be something where you are going to say, ‘Just the people who get a positive (antibody) test go back (to work) and then those who don’t, don’t.’ ”

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