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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Sen. Wilson advocates for antibody testing

Dr. Melnick: Tests have promise but are not ready for prime time

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 27, 2020, 4:50pm

For more than a month, state Sen. Lynda Wilson has had 100 coronavirus antibody test kits in her home.

The Vancouver Republican received the kits from a Michigan-based company with which she has a personal connection. No health organization or agency she’s reached out to will take the tests from her, so now she’s decided to send them back.

Out of curiosity, Wilson even used the finger prick test on herself last week and got a negative result.

“At this point, I can’t get people interested in them,” Wilson said.

The tests, which have not been approved by federal regulators, are supposed to show if someone has been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 and has developed protective antibodies against the virus.

Antibody testing is different than antigen testing, which is being offered across the U.S. and shows if someone is carrying, and potentially spreading, COVID-19.

Wilson checked to see if the state Department of Health would take the tests, but because the test kits have not been approved by federal regulators, the state can’t use them for clinical purposes, according to an email from Washington Joint Information Center spokeswoman Chelsea Hodgson.

Wilson was offered a spot for the tests in Clark County’s COVID-19 supply warehouse, while the county examines if the tests can be useful. She turned that offer down; she said she thinks the tests will just sit on a shelf. She said she wants the tests to go to front-line workers such as hospital staff.

“I want them to be used in the proper way,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s search is just a portion of a struggle that has developed in Washington recently. Dozens of state legislators want to start exploring or offering antibody testing to help reopen Washington, while Washington health officials say antibody testing is not accurate enough yet to play a role in easing physical distancing.

A letter to Inslee

On April 17, Wilson and 35 other Washington legislators sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, asking him to “aggressively” expand Washington’s focus on antibody, or serology, testing.

“While we support continuing testing of people for the virus, those who were never tested but instead advised to stay home solely because of their COVID-like symptoms should be tested for COVID-19 antibodies,” the letter reads.

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The letter was signed by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Reps. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, Paul Harris R-Vancouver and Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver. One Democrat, Tim Sheldon of Mason County, signed the letter.

According to the letter, the lawmakers believe that antibody testing might show that sizeable pockets of Washington’s population have already been infected by the virus. That would change the risk factor for relaxing physical distancing measures.

“Antibody testing is therefore essential to getting Washingtonians back to work and accelerating what is already sure to be a long economic recovery,” the letter reads.

Potential to help

In last week’s Clark County Board of Health meeting, Republican Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy pushed for the county and state to further explore antibody testing, while acknowledging the science on antibody testing shows it is not yet ready to be used in shaping health policy.

The councilor has been in frequent contact with Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick to learn more about antibody testing, and its veracity.

In a phone interview Monday, Medvigy said he hopes an increased focus on antibody testing could expedite its vetting process, so that antibody testing could soon be reliable enough to inform policy around reopening.

Medvigy referenced antibody studies done in California, and New York state’s antibody testing, saying that he wants Washington and Clark County to be at the forefront of COVID-19 science. Medvigy said Democratic New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s support of antibody testing shows it has bipartisan support. No state is currently using antibody test results to relax physical distancing measures.

“As a nonscientist layperson, I think the testing has merit and potential to help our county despite all the shortcomings,” Medvigy said in an email.

Antigen focus

So far, Washington has focused most of its resources on significantly increasing antigen testing.

When a positive test returns, public health workers can investigate the case and trace it to close contacts who can be isolated. Antigen testing is far more reliable at this point than antibody testing, according to health experts.

Earlier this month, Inslee said he wants the state to be able to test 20,000 to 30,000 people per day, in order to decrease physical distancing measures.

Melnick and state health officials have expressed concerns around the validity of current antibody tests for COVID-19, though they say it will eventually play a large role in virus surveillance, once the tests are vetted and offer accurate, informative results. 

According to an email from state Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington is currently part of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study examining antibody levels. According to KUOW, The University of Washington Virology Laboratory is conducting antibody testing, using tests manufactured by Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories Inc.

Abbott also created rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 and has plans to ship millions of antibody tests to hospitals in coming months.

Right now, Melnick said he’s concerned about antibody tests returning false positives. New York, and private manufacturers like Abbott, have been allowed to develop antibody tests without the normal federal regulatory process, given the emergency of the pandemic.

Melnick said he is concerned that tests might return positive for one of the many garden variety strains of coronavirus that doesn’t cause COVID-19.

He’s also concerned that there isn’t any concrete science that outlines what having novel coronavirus antibodies means in terms of a person’s immunity to COVID-19. Health experts have said it’s very likely you have some level of immunity to the novel coronavirus if you have antibodies, but there is still no way to verify immunity, or how long it will last.

“I think they have a lot of promise, but they aren’t ready for prime time yet,” Melnick said.

Columbian staff writer