Walker County clinic to offer rapid antibody testing to determine past COVID-19 infection

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, orange, emerging from the surface of cells, gray, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP)

A health clinic in LaFayette, Georgia, will start offering rapid antibody testing Friday for health care workers and first responders. The "rapid screen" is not meant to serve as an official diagnosis of a COVID-19 infection but is designed to detect antibodies, the proteins that signal an immune response, and are used to determine past infection.

Leslie Weaver, owner of the Ready Clinic and one of six nurse practitioners on staff, said the plan was originally to offer the tests to only health care workers and first responders in Walker County but, due to demand, the clinic likely will open up testing to the public on a first-come, first-served basis.

The new rapid test is a serology, or blood serum, test. The drive-thru, finger-prick test at the LaFayette clinic will test for two antibodies: IgG and IgM. The first indicates a previous infection and the second indicates a current infection.

If someone were to test positive for IgM, they would be referred to their primary health care provider in order to get a COVID-19 test.

"This is for people who have had it and recovered or for people who have had symptoms for longer than five to seven days," Weaver said. "This is not a test to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis. This is really to give people peace of mind."

As the clinic announced the availability of the test, it also issued a disclaimer about it after President Donald Trump's White House coronavirus task force warned against buying the antibody tests.

"The manufacturer of the test has published a validation study and accuracy rate of greater than 95%," a statement read. "However, Ready Clinic is unable to make any claims of accuracy until the [federal Food and Drug Administration] makes the final determination."

The antibody test Ready Clinic is offering was manufactured by Premier Biotech.

Virologist Clint Smith told the Times Free Press on Sunday that communicating the differences among the COVID-19 tests that are hitting the market can be a challenge.

"I could imagine people would be very willing to pay [for the serology test] not fully knowing that it doesn't answer the question, 'Am I currently sick?'" said Smith, who specializes in coronaviruses at Sewanee-The University of the South. "Where they're really useful is when we have shortages - like we do now - to be able to know which health care providers have already been infected and have already recovered. That could help hospitals in terms of some staffing questions."

The test being offered in LaFayette is similar to the one being offered at a Cleveland clinic in Bradley County, Tennessee.

In March, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for lab companies to manufacture, validate and distribute the antibody tests and bypass the usual FDA validation process. That was to help speed up the process of distributing tests, even though 100% accuracy of the tests couldn't be guaranteed.

Weaver said the FDA is in the process of validating all antibody tests but the process may take several weeks to complete.

Ready Clinic has locations in Ringgold and Flintstone, Georgia, but will offer the rapid antibody testing only at its LaFayette location.

First responders and health care workers who want to request a spot for testing should visit readyclinic.org and click on the link to sign up. Someone from the clinic will call with an assigned day and time for testing, officials said.

The clinic expects to test from 50 to 60 people during the three-hour window Friday morning and will look into opening up for more testing days next week.

People are asked to show their medical ID and badge. Testing will take place from 9 a.m. to noon on Friday at the Ready Clinic at 106 Pearl Plaza.

Each test will cost $40 and cannot be covered by insurance. The Ready Clinic is not allowed to bill insurance providers for the test until it is officially approved by the FDA.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.