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Rapid Testing Could Ease Social Distancing. But Getting the Kits to Do So? Another Story. 

A Bend test kit distributor describes his challenges importing at-home test kits

New test kits arrive to the U.S. every day from China that can confirm the presence of coronavirus antibodies in just 15 minutes.

Here in Bend, a business owner who sells other types of test kits is getting into the business of coronavirus testing. Bendite Jeremy Parker runs ToxTests, a company that sells test kits that can quickly detect if a person has alcohol, opioids, marijuana and nearly a dozen other drugs in their system.

click image The U.S has an extreme shortage of testing capacity for COVID-19, but new tests on the way from China could detect coronavirus antibodies and determine immunity. - WALLPAPER FLARE
  • Wallpaper Flare
  • The U.S has an extreme shortage of testing capacity for COVID-19, but new tests on the way from China could detect coronavirus antibodies and determine immunity.

Sales of those kits were down 30% last month, and with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Parker is moving into importing test kits from China that detect coronavirus antibodies using a drop of blood collected from a finger pinprick.

These tests are called serological tests, or sero-surveys, and are different from the nose and throat swabs used to diagnose active cases of COVID-19.

“The test cassettes have thin strips of paper encased inside with two little holes at the top,” Parker explains. “You prick your finger, take a drop of blood, drop it into the test cassette, add a couple of drops of buffer, and the test can read in a few minutes.”

The test indicates if a person has been infected with the coronavirus and recovered. The hope with this new technology is that if a person has been shown to have developed a level of immunity to reinfection, they could potentially re-enter society. They could go back to work during a time when millions of Americans are living under stay-at-home orders to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Do these tests work?

“One of the limitations [of the kits] is that it takes a while for the body to build up antibodies to the virus… a few days to a week,” Parker said. “If you take it right when you’re feeling sick, it may show up as negative.”

Parker has been sifting through pages of clinical data and product information—from his new home office, in his garage—for weeks now.

“With these test kits, they are not 100% accurate, even with the drug kits [I normally sell] there’s potential for cross-contamination, but this company has been submitting their clinical data to the FDA, and on average it’s 95% accurate.”

The tests may also pick up antibodies for different strains of coronavirus other than COVID-19, Parker said. But these are the same tests used in South Korea, the country hailed by the World Health Organization as instituting one of the most successful pandemic responses in the world. Along with Germany and Italy, South Korea has the highest coronavirus testing rates per capita.

The end of social distancing?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced April 4 that it has begun using serology antibody tests in order to survey groups of people who weren’t diagnosed with COVID-19, but live in pandemic hotspots. It will then test a representative sample of people around the county, as well as targeting health care workers, but these later phases won’t begin until this summer, according to Politico.

Because it has been so difficult to get diagnostic tests—which work by identifying COVID-19’s DNA—researchers are still in the dark about how many people in the U.S. may have carried the virus. A massive effort in antibody testing could inform the scope of social distancing measures during future outbreaks.

click image Antibody testing could help ease social distancing restrictions for those who have immunity. - PXFUEL
  • Pxfuel
  • Antibody testing could help ease social distancing restrictions for those who have immunity.
Unfortunately, scientists cannot say for certain whether antibodies definitely provide immunity. If coronavirus acts like other viruses, antibodies will protect people from re-infection, Dr. Anthony Fauci (the top U.S. infectious disease expert) told The New York Times.

Why can’t I buy this test right now?

Weeks into state and national lockdowns and emergency declarations, the U.S. cannot test everyone who is sick because of a shortage of both tests and personal protective equipment for health care workers. In Oregon, both the OHA and primary care physicians restrict testing to those 65 and older with chronic medical conditions and compromised immune systems.

Parker from ToxTests said that because of the global demand for serological tests, as shipments arrive from China, they are sold before they even land in the U.S.

“A supplier I work with all the time just jacked up the price to $1000 for a box of 25 kits,” he said. “With another, the cost doubled in 48 hours. Nobody will reveal how many [kits] they have on hand. Things are coming in waves. There’s long wait times. I have to tell [my clients] that the kits may not arrive for four to six weeks.”

Further, because of the nationwide test shortage, the kits are currently only available for professional use: at hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices. Google is now blocking any online sales for at-home test kits that might come on the market, Parker said.

Response from the Oregon Health Authority

I asked the Oregon Health Authority last week why there's still such a holdup  for testing in Oregon, when testing is expanding rapidly in other states like Washington and New York.

Philip Schmidt, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority, said Oregon is in fact moving quickly on testing, and conducted more than 17,000 tests in the last two weeks.

“There were well-publicized delays in test kits due to federal issues in the early weeks/months of this outbreak, but as Oregon is now around 20th per capita in testing, we feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Schmidt told the Source in an email. “Also our overall strategy of 'Stay Home, Save Lives,' seems to be working thus far… Testing is a part of the strategy, but really it rests on people taking physical distancing very seriously, which we believe they are.”

Schmidt shared a modeling document from the Institute of Disease Modeling in Bellevue, Washington that demonstrates that Oregon’s social distancing measures are indeed flattening the curve.

See all our Coronavirus coverage at our Coronavirus HQ.

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