87°F
weather icon Clear

State to begin COVID-19 antibody testing in Nevada this month

Updated May 9, 2020 - 5:52 pm

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory plans to begin antibody studies this month of those on the front lines of the pandemic and of the general public to better understand what portion of the population has been infected by the new coronavirus and may have developed some immunity.

Unlike diagnostic tests for COVID-19 that determine whether an individual is currently infected by the respiratory virus, antibody tests detect proteins created by the immune system that indicate a previous infection.

By identifying past infection, including in people who showed no symptoms, antibody testing can help create a clearer picture of how many people have been infected and, in turn, enable public health officials to calculate a more accurate rate of death from the disease.

Antibody testing provides “that time-travel element that you rarely get in science,” said Mark Pandori, director of the public lab at the School of Medicine at the University of Nevada, Reno. “We’re going to get a handle on how dangerous this virus was — and is.”

The studies come as policymakers are grappling with the risks of reopening society, with some touting antibody testing as a key to people returning to work. Health care providers have begun to order the tests from private labs, though it’s not yet known whether the presence of antibodies confers immunity and, if so, to what degree and for how long.

The public health lab in Reno plans to launch four or five antibody studies within weeks involving 400 people apiece, each focusing on the general public or on front-line health care workers and emergency responders, Pandori said. The studies probably will be conducted in Washoe County, Northern Nevada’s most populous county.

Getting a better fix on infections

Health officials believe that far more people have been infected than the number of cases confirmed by COVID-19 testing. That’s because many people infected by the virus have mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, and so have not sought out testing.

What’s more, an initial shortage of testing materials meant that not everyone who asked for a test could get one, including many people with moderate and even more severe symptoms.

As a result, a death rate for the coronavirus based off a percentage of those who tested positive amounts to a “fallacy,” Pandori said.

Of the more than 4,600 people who have tested positive for the coronavirus in Clark County, about 5 percent have died. However, the handful of antibody tests conducted around the country would suggest that the fatality rate here, as elsewhere, is much lower.

An antibody study conducted in Los Angeles County, for example, suggested that 40 times as many people had been infected there than the number of confirmed cases, lowering the estimated fatality rate to between 0.1 and 0.2 percent.

Antibody testing results in New York City indicated that as many as one in five residents had been infected, suggesting a fatality rate of 0.5 percent or, if factoring in probable COVID-19 deaths, 0.8 percent.

The death rate from the flu is about 0.1 percent.

A more accurate picture of how far the virus has spread helps communities understand “what challenges lie ahead,” Pandori said.

For its antibody studies, the Reno lab is using a test manufactured by Abbott Laboratories with a 99.6 percent rate of accuracy. Out of 1,000 people tested, four would receive a false positive result.

The test is one of a dozen authorized by the Food and Drug Administration, but more than 100 additional tests of varying quality have flooded the market in the past two months without having undergone review.

“We unfortunately see unscrupulous actors marketing fraudulent test kits and using the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of Americans’ anxiety,” the FDA cautioned this week.

Testing in Southern Nevada

The Southern Nevada Health District, meanwhile, is ramping up to provide antibody tests by early June, said Dr. Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer. Plans have not been finalized, but the agency probably will initially offer the test to the general population and to targeted populations at potentially greater risk of infection, such as the homeless and people in nursing homes.

Some early efforts at antibody testing in Southern Nevada got off to a bumpy start, with state health officials temporarily shutting down a pair of drive-thru testing operations over regulatory issues. Meanwhile, private labs such as Quest and LabCorp have begun offering antibody tests, which can be ordered by health care providers.

UNLV Medicine, the clinical arm UNLV’s School of Medicine, expects to start offering antibody testing to the public later this month. It’s still evaluating what type of antibody test to use, either one where blood is drawn or obtained through a prick to the finger, said Dr. Michael Gardner, the medical school’s vice dean of clinical affairs.

Gardner acknowledged that, like many people, he would like to be tested to satisfy his own curiosity about whether he had been infected. If he tested positive for antibodies, “I don’t know if I would change my behavior, but I think I would worry less,” he said.

Even if he tested positive for the antibodies, he said he would still maintain social distance, put sanitizer on his hands after pumping gas and avoid walking into a crowded restaurant.

And testing “will help people feel more comfortable about getting business open, getting people back to work, those kinds of things,” he said.

But he noted that it’s still unclear what level of immunity the antibodies provide.

“There’s some data and good reasons to think there’s going to be some level of immunity,” Gardner said. “Maybe it’s just for a few years, or maybe, if you get it a second time, you won’t get it as severely.”

He noted that people exposed to the “closest cousins” to the new coronavirus, the SARS and MERS viruses, seem to have developed immunity.

One potential hazard of antibody testing is that some people who test positive may erroneously believe they’re “suddenly invulnerable to the disease,” Pandori said.

He cautioned that a positive antibody test does not mean “you’re immune or invulnerable to this monster.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
COVID-19 case reported at Legislature's special session - Video
A person who was inside the Nevada Legislature Building has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Brenda Erdoes said Friday, July 10. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump Pushing for Reopening Schools and In-Person Learning - Video
Donald Trump launched an effort on Wednesday to reopen schools across the United States with in-person learning.
Special session to tackle $1.2B budget deficit in special session Wednesday - VIDEO
Closing the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole will be the prime focus of the upcoming special legislative session that will convene at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Carson City, according to a proclamation issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Lawmakers to tackle $1.2B budget deficit in special session Wednesday - VIDEO
Closing the state’s $1.2 billion budget hole will be the prime focus of the upcoming special legislative session that will convene at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Carson City, according to a proclamation issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Democratic leaders resign
Several key Clark County Democratic Party leaders have resigned as progressive leadership has swelled in recent months.
Dream Big Nevada celebrates DACA ruling - VIDEO
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected President Donald Trump’s effort to end legal protections under DACA for 650,000 young immigrants. Astrid Silva, founder of Dream Big Nevada, discusses the temporary victory and the next step for Dreamers.
Councilwoman Michele Fiore walks out of city council meeting - Video
Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore walks out of a City Council meeting during public comments.
Mitt Romney marches in Washington, D.C., protest - Video
On Sunday, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah joined a group of protesters marching through Washington, D.C. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada gyms, bars that do not serve food can reopen Friday - VIDEO
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday evening said Phase 2 of the state’s Nevada United: Roadmap to Recovery will begin on Friday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Rep. Horsford admits to having affair - VIDEO
Nevada Congressman Steven Horsford admitted to having an affair with Gabriela Linder, a former intern for Sen. Harry Reid. Linder detailed her account of the affair in a podcast she called, "Mistress for Congress." (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sisolak says businesses will begin reopening under phase 1 - VIDEO
The first phase of reopening Nevada’s businesses will begin Saturday, May 9, Gov. Steve Sisolak said Thursday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Joe Biden denies Tara Reade's sexual assault allegation - VIDEO
The former senate aide claims Biden assaulted her in 1993 when he was a senator. Biden first denied the accusations via a public post on Medium. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
RJ interview with Sisolak on the reopening plan for Nevada - VIDEO
The Las Vegas Review-Journal interviewed Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak on the plan for reopening Nevada during the coronavirus pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sisolak reacts to Goodman CNN interview- VIDEO
Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman repeated her call to immediately reopen businesses during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday, leading to a reaction from Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sisolak praises Nevadans for staying at home, saving lives - VIDEO
Gov. Steve Sisolak said Thursday it’s still too early to know when the state’s COVID-19 shutdown orders could be lifted or when businesses could start to reopen their doors. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump gives governors 3-phase approach to open US - VIDEO
President Donald Trump declared victory in America’s war against the “invisible enemy” as the president’s Coronavirus Task Force released “Opening up America Again” guidelines. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump names Jacky Rosen to task force on reopening economy - VIDEO
President Donald Trump named Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to be a member of his Opening Up America Again Congressional Group Thursday to advise him on coronavirus policy. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden for president - VIDEO
On April 13, former presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders announced his official endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST