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Create Antibody Tests for Health Workers, Birx Urges Researchers (1)

April 2, 2020, 12:24 AMUpdated: April 2, 2020, 1:59 AM

Universities have been called by the White House coronavirus coordinator to develop tests quickly that could screen an entire health system for Covid-19 antibodies.

“We have the most brilliant scientists in the world in our universities in state after state,” Dr. Deborah L. Birx said during Wednesday’s White House press briefing. “Our universities can do that by Friday. So I’m putting that challenge out to them to really work on that and do that.”

ELISA tests—the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay—are most commonly used to detect HIV antibodies and antigens in the blood.

It would be very reassuring to front line health-care workers to know they are safe from re-infection if these tests could tell them they were infected but they now have the antibodies to protect them, said Birx, a State Department immunologist advising the White House on its response to the outbreak.

Birx said she has been in talks with universities over the past few days and asked them to develop a “simple ELISA test that could be used rapidly in their health centers” for Covid-19. She believes the tests could be available this month.

“It’s easy to do. We’ve all developed ELISAs. In a day or two after development, they could screen their entire hospital,” Birx said. She called on “every university in every state to develop ELISAs. You can buy the antigens and the controls online and really work to test entire health-care communities in your states and support them that way,” she said.

Limitations for Severely Ill Identified

An ELISA test can screen lots of people and tell whether someone who was sick with a fever had Covid-19, Ross McKinney Jr., chief scientific officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said in an email. A researcher can screen a group of people and then evaluate their symptom history, which would enable a health-care system to know how many truly asymptomatic patients there are.

“This matters if it was on the mild side. It will also let us define the range of disease,” said McKinney, who led Duke University’s pediatric infectious disease division before joining the AAMC.

“However, it’s not a useful test to diagnose acute disease because it won’t turn positive until somewhere on the order of the 10th day after infection. That won’t keep people from mis-using it.” The genetic tests that are currently being used to diagnose patients will remain the standard for diagnosing acute disease, he said.

Columbia University announced Monday that it’s screening Covid-19 survivors for antibodies that could be used to treat others. The lab will determine if a patient has enough antibodies—proteins made by the immune system that can neutralize viruses—to serve as a treatment or vaccine against Covid-19.

“Antibody-rich plasma from convalescent patients has been used for decades to treat diseases like influenza and even Ebola,” Dr. Eldad A. Hod, associate professor of pathology & cell biology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and lead investigator of the research, said in a statement.

(Updated with comments from AAMC official in the seventh through ninth paragraphs.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Fawn Johnson at; Peggy Aulino at