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Antibody testing by commercial labs begins at Marian, Santa Barbara County labs
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Antibody testing by commercial labs begins at Marian, Santa Barbara County labs

Marian Regional Medical Center on Monday will start offering COVID-19 antibody testing for hospital patients with the help of medical device company Abbott Laboratories, contributing to a clearer picture of the virus' spread in the county. 

The hospital will be using Abbott's IgG antibody serology test to detect the presence of coronavirus-fighting antibodies in individuals via blood sample.

Results produced by the test, operating with 99% specificity, will help to illustrate whether the patient has been exposed to the virus in the past and developed antibodies in response. 

"We have verified our methodology for the COVID-19 antibody test and will be offering that testing at Marian Regional Medical Center beginning May 4," said Kevin Ferguson, the hospital's Medical Directory of Pathology. "Initially, the testing will be utilized for patients receiving services at the hospital. We are also evaluating options for communitywide testing." 

Prior to obtaining more tests for patients, Marian lab staff were using tests from Santa Maria-based diagnostics lab Hardy Diagnostics for research purposes, testing it on hospital staff and preparing lab facilities for its use in-house, Ferguson said. 

Testing guidelines

Antibody tests, also called serology tests, are not diagnostic tools. Rather, they detect the continued presence of antibodies in those who have already recovered or who have never shown symptoms at all. 

Timing is also important, as it can take up to three weeks after symptoms first appear for antibodies to develop, creating the potential for false negatives if the test is taken too early. 

According to Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County Public Health officer, collection of antibody results can give a broader picture of the rate of spread and exposure in the county, as diagnostic testing has been very limited with approximately 4,500 tests run so far.

"It will be very interesting in the near future to see how many people had contact with this virus, and it will give us very valued information about how far it has spread in the community," Ansorg said at an April 27 press conference.

Health-care providers running antibody tests will be required to report results to the Public Health Department for future data analysis, department spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said. 

Although there have been discussions of whether the presence of antibodies suggest immunity to the virus, there has not been a clear determination made on this point, according to Public Health officials. 

Bringing tests to labs 

After weeks of officials seeking antibody tests for use in the county, tests are now also being used and prepared at Pacific Diagnostics Labs and Quest Diagnostics labs throughout the county.

However, the wait for Emergency Use Authorizations from the Food and Drug Administration has delayed the arrival of antibody tests in labs, with county Public Health officials refusing to utilize tests not currently authorized or under review. 

Antibody tests produced by commercial lab LabCorp are also in use at Pacific Diagnostics Laboratories in Santa Barbara, and Quest Diagnostics began offering Abott's IgG antibody serology test last week.

According to Dr. Stewart Comer, director of Pacific Diagnostics Laboratories, the lab began gathering samples and running tests for patients throughout the Central Coast earlier this week. 

"We have referred to LabCorps, on behalf of several individual physicians from Thousand Oaks to [San Luis Obispo], over 100 tests since we started this week," Comer said. 

Quest's tests, provided both Abbott and EUROIMMUN, both 99% specificity, according to Quest officials.

Abbot's test has received FDA authorization, and EUROIMMUN has been approved for emergency use while awaiting review by the FDA.

Quest has also released an at-home antibody test that can be requested and purchased online and performed by consumers before being sent to medical providers for testing. However, this test has not received approval by the FDA. 

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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