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UA expands free COVID-19 antibody testing

Following a significant increase in the number of Arizonans who have been exposed to coronavirus, the University of Arizona and state of Arizona are expanding their free COVID-19 antibody testing program for 250,000 people across the state to include 15 new categories of essential workers considered at high risk for exposure. The antibody test, developed by UA researchers, determines who has been exposed to and developed an immune response against COVID-19.

The following essential workers, in addition to workers in other employment categories, are now eligible for antibody testing under the program:

  • Educators
  • Child care workers
  • Agriculture, grocery and food service workers
  • Hospitality employees
  • Solid waste collection workers
  • Transportation services workers
  • Members of the National Guard

Previously made eligible for testing, and remaining so, were workers in these groups:

  • Law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs and other first reponders
  • Warehouse and delivery workers
  • Utility and government staffers
  • Group home and disability care workers
  • IT staffers
  • Bank tellers
  • Journalists

More information and registration for the test is available at covid19antibodytesting.arizona.edu.

"Our antibody test is exceedingly accurate in determining who has developed an immune response against the COVID-19 virus. Combined with other tools such as diagnostic testing and contact tracing, it can help us better understand exposure, spread and levels of protection in our communities," said Deepta Bhattacharya, one of the developers of the antibody test and an associate professor in the UA's Department of Immunobiology.

Immunity study launching

In conjunction with the expanded testing eligibility, the university also is launching a $7.7 million yearlong study funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to identify patterns of COVID-19 immunity over time in previously and newly infected individuals. Dr. Jeff Burgess, associate dean for research and a professor at the UA's College of Public Health, is serving as principal investigator for the study, named the Arizona Healthcare, Emergency Response, and Other Essential Workers Surveillance, or AZ HEROES, Study.

"The research questions we intend to answer will help us understand how long immunity to COVID-19 persists, and if secondary exposures to the virus are handled differently by the body than the initial exposure," Burgess said.

The research team will seek to enroll 4,000 health care workers, first responders and other frontline workers as participants in the study, who will participate in weekly COVID-19 surveillance and quarterly antibody testing. For questions about the AZ HEROES Study, call the study team at 520-848-4026, or email AZHeroes@arizona.edu.

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Karen Lutrick of the College of Medicine – Tucson; Kate Ellingson and Dr. Joe Gerald of the College of Public Health; and Bonnie LaFleur, a research professor of biostatistics at the BIO5 Institute, are co-investigators for the study. Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, one of the developers of the antibody test, head of the Department of Immunobiology and co-director of the Center on Aging, will oversee the biological analyses for the study.

Differences in COVID-19 testing

There are three types of tests that are being deployed during the pandemic – two that use nasal swabs to diagnose whether an individual is currently infected with the COVID-19 virus, and one that uses a blood draw to determine whether an individual has developed antibodies and an immune response against the virus. An antibody test is not used to diagnose an active infection.

The antibody test developed at UA Health Sciences is one of the most accurate in the country. The testing lab uses two different viral proteins, both of which must return antibody signals for a sample to be called positive. Tests have been further validated in the lab to confirm the presence of virus-neutralizing antibodies, the best available measure of immunological protection.

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