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NGHS taking part in study of antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients; data could lead to a treatment
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Nurses and staff work in a dedicated COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit on the fifth floor of Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville’s South Patient Tower. - photo by Northeast Georgia Health System

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Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s laboratory services medical director Dr. Joseph Conway said Wednesday, April 29, the hospital hopes to make antibody testing for COVID-19 more widely available “as soon as next week.”

“We’ve investigated different labs and testing kits being offered to find what we believe to be most accurate and reliable. We ultimately chose to work with Mayo Clinic’s lab, and we’re finalizing our processes now,” Conway said.

Conway said both the diagnostic and antibody testing require a physician’s order.

Northeast Georgia Health System is taking part in a study based at the Mayo Clinic which is looking at antibodies in blood plasma as a way to possibly treat current COVID-19 patients.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the study, and NGHS spokeswoman Marie Krueger said the hope is that the plasma from recovered patients “will help those with current severe COVID-19 disease recover as well.”

“It’s important to stress that we don't know if the antibodies mean a person is immune to the virus. This is an area of active investigation. The current greatest utility for the antibody test is to determine if you can donate blood plasma. There’s still much research to (be) done to determine if plasma from recovered patients will help those with current severe COVID-19 disease recover as well,” Conway said.

Braselton Urgent Care on Old Winder Highway has been offering the antibody test for the past week. Certified physician assistant Caleb Henson said there were roughly 20 tests administered Wednesday, which was the first big day with people showing interest in the test.

Henson said he has been using it in conjunction with the diagnostic swab testing.

“For people that come in that are worried about having it, if I’m getting a negative swab back, I’m doing the antibody test to back that up. If the (immediate immune response) is negative as well, it increases the odds that the swab was accurate,” Henson said.

Regarding the plasma study, Conway said previous studies of patients with the original coronavirus, SARS CoV-1, and pandemic influenza A, the H1N1 swine flu outbreak in 2009, who received plasma from recovered patients improved “meaning fewer deaths or quicker discharge from the hospital.”

“Convalescent plasma is the plasma taken from a person that has built an immune response to, and recovered from, the illness. Antibodies are part of the immune response that attack the virus. These antibodies can be transferred in plasma from a patient who has recovered, to a patient who is still sick with COVID-19 to attack the virus and help the sick person recover better,” he said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued four emergency use authorizations on antibody tests as of April 18. 

The FDA commissioner “may allow unapproved medical products or unapproved uses of approved medical products to be used in an emergency to diagnose, treat, or prevent serious or life-threatening diseases or conditions caused by (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) threat agents when there are no adequate, approved, and available alternatives,” according to the FDA website.

“Once we make testing more widely available, a physician can order an antibody test for anyone who wants one. We’re not sure what the cost will be for patients just yet, but they should contact their insurance provider to understand more about whether the tests will be covered and what out-of-pocket costs may be,” said Jo Brewer, executive director of Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s laboratory services.

The antibody test requires a blood sample, and Conway said the expected turnaround time is three to five days.

Longstreet Clinic’s chief operations officer T. Loren Funk said the clinic is not currently testing patients, and they are still evaluating how best to use the test “if warranted.”

“This is not a diagnostic test, so it makes no difference in determining how a patient is treated.  Currently, our providers only see research value and we will be working with our community health care partners to see how this information can help us manage the COVID-19 crisis from a public health perspective,” Funk wrote in an email.