U of M issues proposal to ramp up COVID-19 testing options in the state, requests $20M

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Thursday, the University of Minnesota announced it is developing plans to expand testing options for COVID-19 as well as antibody resistance.

According to the proposal, university researchers want to conduct Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing and serologic antibody testing "to identify people who can safely go back to work."

"There’s a large population of people that got infected that may not have known it. They might have had mild upper respiratory symptoms," explained Vice Dean for Research Tim Schacker at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "They’ve made antibodies, they’ve recovered and yet we have them at home not working. If we can find that group of people and get them back to work, that’s our goal. But to do that you have to do the PCR test and you have to do the antibody test."

PCR testing is done on swabs of the nose collected from those who may be contagious with COVID-19. Serologic antibody testing is a blood test to detect certain antibodies to COVID-19. According to the university, a positive test means the person tested was infected and would likely be immune to additional infection of the specific virus strain circulating.

To accomplish those testing aims, the university is requesting $20 million.

"With State funding, the (university’s) Medical School could increase our testing capacity to approximately 10,000 antibody and 10,000 PCR tests per day," the university stated in its proposal.

Officials say they consider the university to be in the best position to expand this testing because the tests were developed on-site, "can be scaled up to meet the needs of this project," and because of existing collaborations with in-state hospitals and clinics.

Officials also stated the tests can be scaled up without supply chain concerns. The university noted it uses reagents and materials already on hand either in campus labs, or produced by campus labs, so the university wouldn’t have to rely on diagnostic companies for certain materials.

"I think the thing that’s unique about what we’ve done is we’ve really relied on our own internal resources to get this done," said Schacker. "We’re working on a method where we don’t have to extract the RNA so we don’t have to use those kits that are in high demand."

During a daily briefing conference call Wednesday, state leaders discussed the conversation surrounding serological testing as well as other test options.

Coronavirus Daily Briefing: State leaders weigh testing options in Minnesota

Gov. Tim Walz said the hope is that serology testing could be much larger than diagnostic testing. Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Diseases with MDH, added that some health officials think the bottlenecks that researchers have experienced in terms of molecular testing would not be as bad with serological testing, due to greater capacity with the latter.

However, health care officials are also cautious over serological tests because they’re not all created equally, which could create a wide range in results. Additionally, researchers are still working to understand immunity to the virus.

Schacker said, if lawmakers approve the funding, they could begin mass testing within the next few weeks.

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