CFAES researchers working on a new COVID-19 test

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COLUMBUS, Ohio—Many people infected with COVID-19 show little to no symptoms of the disease, so researchers at The Ohio State University are creating a blood test that could detect the true extent of the pandemic

The researchers have also assisted Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center physicians who have created a treatment for severe cases of COVID-19, using the blood plasma of people who had COVID-19 and beat it.

Both the blood test for COVID-19 and the plasma treatment for those suffering from the respiratory disease could be critical in understanding and controlling the current pandemic.  

Unlike the standard nasal swab test being used to diagnose COVID-19, the test that the Ohio State scientists, including ones at the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES), are developing is an antibody blood test. The test will determine whether someone has COVID-19 by checking if his or her blood contains proteins the body produces to fight the respiratory disease.

Currently people tested for COVID-19 are mostly those with signs of severe respiratory disease after other illnesses have been ruled out. That includes the common flu. But the sneaky nature of the novel coronavirus is that someone can be infected with the virus and show no signs.

“The most important thing in a virus outbreak is detection,” said Scott Kenney, a researcher in the Food Animal Health Research Program (FAHRP) in CFAES. “The way screening is working now, it’s underrepresenting the number of people who have the virus.”

CFAES researchers are working with the Wexner Medical Center physicians on these antibody blood tests that are expected to be available in the coming months.

A serology test, also known as an “immunity test,” is done by collecting a blood sample from a patient suspected of having COVID-19, then analyzing it for antibodies to the virus. These types of tests are often used to diagnose various types of viruses.

“Knowing who is immune to COVID-19 is important for identifying workers who might safely return to work,” said Linda Saif, a faculty member in FAHRP and co-director of the Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Section of Ohio State’s Infectious Diseases Institute.

“It’s also important for identifying health care providers who could work with the sickest patients or perform the hospital procedures more likely to expose them to the virus.”

Serology testing will be important to understand how many people have had the virus, Kenney said.  

If researchers begin seeing infection numbers around 60%, “then we achieve something called ‘herd immunity,’ where enough people might be immune to limit the rapid spread of the virus,” Kenney said. “Once we reach these goals, we can, cautiously, start returning to normal lives.”

By contributing to the development of the serology tests, Kenney, Saif, and their colleagues in FAHRP collaborated with the Wexner Medical Center, which in turn created a treatment for the most critically ill patients suffering from COVID-19. The treatment uses blood plasma from people who had COVID-19 and have recovered.

A person infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 typically reacts by producing antibodies. Blood plasma, the liquid part of blood containing those antibodies, can be transferred to a patient actively fighting the disease to treat the disease.

“This therapy has shown promise,” Kenney said. “It’s definitely another tool for emergency physicians to consider helping those in critical need.”

This treatment option, known as convalescent plasma therapy, is commonly used to treat other viruses, including the Spanish flu and Ebola, a deadly virus for people and animals, but primarily contained to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Recovered patient plasma has proven effective to some extent in other cases of viral infection where drugs have not been developed yet.

Convalescent plasma therapy typically is used for patients who do not seem to be getting better with other treatments, people in life-threatening situations. It is not used with individuals having more mild symptoms of COVID-19, because it is better for them to fight the virus without the assistance of plasma from another individual.

“The most effective use of this therapy would be in hospitalized patients to decrease disease severity and also alleviate their need to be transferred to the ICU,” Saif said. “But if enough donors and convalescent plasma is available, this therapy could also be administered to the frontline heath care workers to prevent their infection.”

(Along with Linda Saif and Scott Kenney, the entire FAHRP team collaborating with the Wexner Medical Center on COVID-19 research includes Anastasia Vlasova, an assistant professor and Qiuhong Wang, an associate professor.)

CFAES News Team
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Scott Kenney

Linda Saif