UAE rolls out new testing kit to detect Covid-19 antibodies

Serology tests will tell medics if an individual has developed antibodies against the virus and may potentially be immune

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The UAE has rolled out a new test to detect if people have immunity to Covid-19.

The National Reference Laboratory on Tuesday said it would release the tests to the local medical market.

The tests work by detecting antibodies in the blood. This tells medics if the individual has previously had the virus, regardless of how severe the symptoms were.

Dr Basel Altrabulsi, chief medical officer of the lab, run by Mubadala Healthcare, described the tests was “a powerful tool” to help front-line workers.

Once a vaccine is developed, you can prioritise those that don't have the antibodies because the assumption is that they would fight the virus better than those who don't have it

“When you go back and design a return of work policy one of the first thing you do is risk assessments. If you have serology tests then it will tell you the exposure rates of people. Now you will have an educated guess when people are returning to work by identifying the workforce that could potentially be immune.”

If tests indicate that the majority of the workforce has not had the virus, employers will need to ensure extra measures are in place to avoid staff being infected, particularly medical and vital sector workers.

The main test currently used to check for a Covid-19 infection in screening centres is PCR.

The PCR test detects whether the virus is present in a specific sample, whereas the serology test can tell if a person has ever had Covid-19.

The advantage of the serology test is that it is faster as results can be processed within hours. It also boasts a 99.5 per cent accuracy rate.

However the drawback is that it is currently unclear if people who recover from the coronavirus are immune from being reinfected. Local health authorities have previously said there have been no cases of reinfection in the UAE.

"The test will tell you who was infected before. We are hesitant to say that they are immune because we still don’t know but we assume they have immunity because the rate of reinfection is very low. If this proves to be more true, then these people can be put back into their work environment and you can identify the high risk groups and you can for example relax restrictions on certain people," Dr Altrabulsi said.

Sonja Krauthoefer of the University Hospital Erlangen checks donated blood and plasma samples, if the blood of the donor can be used for the production of therapeutic plasma for the treatment of seriously ill patients, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Erlangen, Germany, April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert

He said testing people for antibodies would also help with managing vaccination drives if a cure is developed for Covid-19.

“Once a vaccine is developed, you can prioritise those that don’t have the antibodies because the assumption is that they would fight the virus better than those who don’t have it.”

However more research and data is needed to confirm these findings, he said.

People who were seemingly immune to the virus could also donate their plasma to be used in the treatment of ongoing cases.

Guidelines for who will be tested in the UAE are currently being drawn up but it is unlikely that the test will be available to the wider public just yet.

“You will not have random orders of the test and there will be clear guidelines to ensure no abuse of the system,” he said.

The test is currently being used to determine if people working in high-risk jobs have been exposed.

If the serology test results come out positive, it will need to be followed by a PCR test to make sure that the patient is no longer contagious.

Dr Laila Wareth, NRL’s Deputy chief executive and chief scientific officer, said the new tests are not meant to replace traditional PCR testing but should be complementary to them.

She warned individuals against a false sense of security from positive antibody test results.

“While anyone can take these tests to determine whether they have been exposed to the virus and have developed antibodies, it does not mean they can ignore precautions, more studies are needed on the protective nature of the antibodies.”

Abdul Oubeisi, chief executive of NRL, said the tests would help health authorities gather a more complete picture of the nature and spread of the disease.

“We believe serological testing will be deemed invaluable in managing this and any future pandemics,” he said.

“These tests have undergone increased scrutiny by bodies such as the FDA, and improved versions have recently been developed that offer vital information for health authorities, clinicians and employers, one of which NRL has just launched into the UAE market.”