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For two weeks now, Dr Matthew Budoff has been overseeing a coronavirus antibody testing site in Los Angeles, offering people a rapid answer to a question on everyone’s mind.
“It’s the only medical screening that people generally want to be positive,” says Budoff, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The procedure is quick and simple. A prick to the finger to recover a droplet of blood that is then tested for coronavirus antibodies to see if the person has already contracted the virus and developed some level of immunity to it — all this within 15 minutes.
“If the lines turn blue, that means that it’s positive and the patients have antibodies, if the line turns red, then they do not have antibodies,” Budoff told AFP on Tuesday from the parking lot of the UCLA medical center in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles, where people could get tested while sitting in their cars.
Budoff, a cardiologist, said the test was very accurate and provides hope that if a person has antibodies, that means they have some level of protection against reinfection, though experts have warned that still no one quite knows how much.
On average, some 40 to 50 people are showing up at the site daily for the $149 test.
In a bid to avoid fraudulent test kits, the US Food and Drug Administration on Monday toughened requirements for such antibody tests that are designed to help public health officials evaluate a population’s exposure to COVID-19.
The serological test administered in Torrance has been approved by the FDA as part of emergency measures implemented in the wake of the virus outbreak.
Budoff said it took him two weeks to manage to procure enough tests from the company in South Korea that manufactures them.
He said the test was 99 percent reliable and there was little possibility the antibodies detected could be related to another virus.
“So it’s a very specific test … meaning if it’s positive, it’s really positive,” he said.
– ‘Answers the question’ –
Those getting tested in Torrance, Budoff said, are mostly people who have developed COVID-19 symptoms and who are keen to know whether they are infected.
“It’s for the peace of mind,” he said. “If it’s negative, then they know that they haven’t had COVID yet. And if it’s positive, they know that they almost definitely have already been exposed and have had the disease and hopefully (…) they have some level of protection against reinfection.”
Eugene Liu, a cardiology intern waiting to get tested on Tuesday, told AFP that he wanted to find out whether he had the virus as it would be useful information in his field of work.
“It kind of helps me assess my own personal risk as a frontline healthcare worker in terms of the potential risk to my family members, my personal risk,” Liu said.
Hamed Bakhsheshi, a radiologist at the UCLA medical center, said he took the test as he also needed to be reassured, one way or the other.
“From the day it was announced, it has always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “Whether I’ve been exposed to a patient or two, or not. And this will answer the question.”
In the end, both men tested negative as did another patient sent by his physician before undergoing surgery.
Budoff said some three to four percent of those tested at the facility have been exposed to the virus.
He said as testing becomes more widely available, more and more companies are looking to test employees before sending them back into the workforce as lockdowns are lifted.
“We’re actually going to an employer’s office on Thursday, to test all of their 70 employees,” he said.
“I think the employer can then allocate who can be in the office or who can be in more, you know, certain quarters and who needs to be more spread out in social distance.”