Officials at University of Hawaii’s medical school aim to develop a new blood sample test that could confidently say whether a person has built up immunity to COVID-19.

But first they’ll need to find the funding.

The test, they say, could help Hawaii better recover from a global pandemic that’s hit the U.S. and its economy especially hard. Specifically, it would be meant for those who may have been exposed to the virus that caused COVID-19 but aren’t sure and never exhibited symptoms of the disease. 

It would determine whether those asymptomatic people were in fact exposed and built up enough antibodies to be considered immune, said Dr. Vivek Nerurkar of the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

John A. Burns School of Medicine. Kakaako. 8 sept 2015. photogrpah Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Officials at the John A. Burns School of Medicine aim to create a test to determine whether someone has built immunity to COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The goal would be to put more local residents sidelined by the pandemic back on the job more quickly — if the test deems it safe for them to return.

“This is a situation where we need to help the people of Hawaii and put them back to work,” said Nerurkar, who chairs the medical school’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology.

While it’s likely that other scientists are working to develop a similar “serology,” or blood-based test elsewhere, the test that comes from UH could go into immediate use here in the islands, he added. He estimated it would give workers an “all clear” of immunity for a year or so.

It could be validated internally at the medical school in about a month’s time and wouldn’t require approvals from a third-party agency such as the Food and Drug Administration, according to Nerurkar.

He says developing the test would be fairly straight forward. “This is not … research we do, this is a service,” Nerurkar said. “This is something we know should work. There’s no reason why it should not.”

The test would, however, require about $250,000 to do that validation, which involves recruiting patients for the trials, he said. He put the cost to then administer the test on a mass level across the islands at at least $4 million.

“Right now we are desperately looking for funding. We have the idea on paper right now and we’re shopping around,” he said Monday.

CORONAVIRUS IN HAWAII

He spent the past weekend drafting the proposal and plans to approach the Legislature and foundations this week to see if they’d be willing to fund it.

Meanwhile, separate from the proposed antibody tests, the medical school also wants to help expand Hawaii’s testing campaign to detect COVID-19 itself. 

So far, more than 20,000 people in Hawaii have been tested for the disease at state and private laboratories, according to the state Department of Health. The UH medical school has a certified laboratory to conduct those tests too, Nerurkar said.

With an additional $4 million to $5 million, health personnel there could test an additional 100,000 people for COVID-19 over a year’s period, according to Nerurkar.

On Tuesday, during a meeting of the state Senate’s Special Committee on COVID-19, Sen. Michelle Kidani asked the state’s health director, Bruce Anderson, if he had an update on the UH medical school and its efforts to help the state ramp up testing.

Anderson didn’t have a clear idea.

“I don’t know exactly where they are on that,” he told Kidani. “They’re of course probably focused more on the research-related activities — which are important, too.”

Public health experts have said that mass testing will be crucial in order to keep COVID-19 at bay when the current restrictions on everyday life and work are lifted.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom flagged “the ability to monitor … through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who are isolated or exposed” as a key indicator for when the most populous state in the U.S. might eventually restart its economy.

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