Berkshire Health Systems considers best use of antibody testing for virus

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PITTSFIELD — Within the next week, Berkshire Health Systems expects to make antibody testing available for the coronavirus, providing a new tool to measure the extent to which the pandemic has affected people in the region.

An antibody test, also known as a serology test, detects proteins the body produces while fighting infection. The presence of these antibodies reveals that a person's immune system has responded to a threat such as a coronavirus, even absent expected symptoms of illness.

But, questions remain about what conclusions can be drawn from test results.

"The data is not fully fleshed out yet," Dr. James Lederer, the chief medical officer and chief quality officer for BHS, says of antibody testing. "We don't know about the immune response. We don't know about the duration of immunity. We don't know about the strength of immunity."

Lederer says one possible best use of antibody testing in the Berkshires would be to tap it to expand a wider monitoring of nursing homes, the site of many COVID-19 deaths.

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It was not clear how the test would be administered to Berkshire residents. The Eagle will publish information about the test as it becomes available.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that staff and residents of nursing homes be tested once a week. But, with an estimated 1,500 people working or living in such facilities in the county, that goal runs up against shortages of test kits for the live virus.

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Lederer says the antibody test might be useful in ruling out people who already have been exposed to the virus and might not need weekly testing for the live virus.

"This other approach, with the serology tests, could help us pare that number down," he said.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has issued cautions on available antibody tests for COVID-19. A May 4 advisory says, "The antibody response in infected patients remains largely unknown, and the clinical values of antibody testing have not been fully demonstrated."

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"Right now there's still a lot of debate as to the usefulness of this test," Lederer said.

But, he believes antibody testing has a role to play.

"There is useful information that can be gained and there's practical information that can be derived from it," Lederer said. "We're really trying to figure out how best to use that test."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.


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