MUSC lab working to verify antibody tests

April 17, 2020
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell infected with coronavirus particles.
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (blue) infected with coronavirus particles (yellow). Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Pathologists at the Medical University of South Carolina will play a key role in the next step toward getting reliable antibody tests out to the public. The Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations (EUA) for a handful of tests so far. That means the FDA’s experts believe the possible benefits of the tests outweigh the risks.

But because the tests were developed quickly in response to the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll get further scrutiny. That’s where the MUSC Health pathology and laboratory medicine team comes in, along with other highly skilled lab experts across the country.

Nikolina Babic, Ph.D., the medical director of the Clinical Chemistry Laboratory and an associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, said she and her colleagues will have access to the studies that led to the EUA and will try to verify their accuracy.

“What we want to avoid with serology tests is what we refer to as false positives. When we tell a person that they are positive for COVID-19 antibodies, we want to be certain that’s true.”

Dr. Nikolina Babic 
Dr. Nikolina Babic

The importance of laboratory vetting was illustrated by what recently happened in the United Kingdom. The U.K. spent $20 million for coronavirus tests from China – tests that a lab at Oxford University later determined weren’t accurate enough to use.

Speed is good at a time like this, scientists say — but there’s no substitute for research.

Research is a core part of MUSC’s mission as an academic medical center, with the expertise and equipment that goes with that. So it’s well-positioned to respond to the need for antibody test development and verification.

Babic said MUSC Health already has equipment made by at least one company producing antibody tests: Abbott Laboratories. Abbott said its test can identify antibodies months or even years after a patient has recovered from the virus.

MUSC’s lab experts are quite familiar with the new coronavirus and the illness it causes, COVID-19. They’ve been busy for weeks testing samples from patients to see if they’ve been infected, processing hundreds of results a day from people across the state.

Babic said the next phase, antibody testing, will add an important new piece to the pandemic puzzle. “Since we don’t fully know the prevalence of the disease in our population, this is going to give us a lot more information.” 

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