How antibody screening for previous coronavirus infections could help restart the economy

April 1, 2020, 10:09 AM UTC

Tests that could reveal whether people have already withstood COVID-19 and gained immunity will soon be widely available in the U.S., in what could be a key step in getting workers back to their jobs and restarting the economy.

New blood tests from Henry Schein Inc. and Becton Dickinson Co. look for antibodies produced in the middle to late stages of infection with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus. Determining whether people have been infected could allow them to return to work without fear of passing along the disease or contracting it.

The test from Melville, New York-based Henry Schein produces results within about 15 minutes using only a blood sample drawn from a pinprick, according to a news release last week. The test from Becton Dickinson and BioMedomics produces similarly fast results and should be available within two weeks, Troy Hopps, a top executive in the company’s point-of-care unit, said in a Tuesday interview.

It’s unknown whether having had a COVID-19 infection will protect someone from contracting the disease again. However, exposure to a pathogen is generally thought to confer at least a degree of immunity. COVID-19 sufferers will likely have immunity for some time, though experts aren’t sure exactly how long.

As such, antibody testing could make it easier to determine whether workers, especially health-care professionals, can return. It could also help public-health officials plot strategy for a second wave of infections.

The tests, which don’t require special laboratory equipment and may even not require a medical professional, will alleviate COVID-19 testing shortfalls in the U.S., said Hopps, the executive from Franklin Lakes, New Jersey-based Becton Dickinson.

“They’re just not going to be able to fulfill the demand,” he said.

Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jonathan Palmer said antibody testing is a “meaningful step forward.” More diagnostics-makers will likely make similar announcements over the coming weeks, he said, while cautioning that scaling up production will take time.

Closely held BioMedomics, based in North Carolina, has been shipping its COVID-19 antibody tests all over the globe, with hundreds of thousands sold in China alone, Chief Operating Officer Brad Heidinger said in a previous interview.

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