The University of Arizona will soon begin analyzing hundreds of thousands of blood samples from healthcare workers and first responders to determine COVID-19 exposure this week as part of a $3.5 million partnership with the state.
As previously reported by Tucson Local Media, the university was awarded the funding for 250,000 tests. The first phase of testing will begin in Pima County this Thursday, April 30, according to UA, and will include 3,000 samples.
Testing for the rest of the state’s front line workers will take place through May 7. With separate funds, the university will also test 1,500 members of the Pima County community. UA President Robert Robbins also recently announced plans to test the majority of the university’s 45,000 students and 15,000 employees.
The antibody tests are built upon the work of UA immunobiology professor Janko Nikolich-Žugich and associate professor Deepta Bhattacharya. The test will help determine how many people have been exposed to COVID-19 and how many have built an immunity against it.
In turn, these tests can determine who is no longer in immediate danger from the virus, and provide a "pathway to developing therapeutics for COVID-19 patients."
"Antibodies are proteins that float in our blood," said Nikolich-Žugich, in a statement. "Good antibodies attach to the virus and whisk it away, preventing it from binding to our cells and getting inside."
According to the university, current estimates suggest that up to half of people exposed to the virus have experienced few or no symptoms. The presence of COVID-19 antibodies means the immune system responded to the virus. It is currently unknown the amount of antibodies needed to fully prevent another infection.
"We are trying to give people an understanding of their condition as soon as possible,” said Dr. Michael D. Dake, senior vice president for health sciences. “On April 30, we will start the process in Pima County by testing 4,500 people; then, on May 7, we will expand testing statewide to cover 250,000 health care workers and first responders. With the funding from the state, we now have the opportunity to look at the entire state and inform the rest of the country of the prevalence among these vulnerable workers."
The University said the antibody test has correctly classified “all 30 confirmed COVID-19 patient samples as positive, and has correctly classified all 32 samples obtained before the coronavirus outbreak as negative.”