How antibody testing and contact tracing might work for NC to reopen

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- There are signs of hope but still a lot of questions as North Carolina passes the midway point of the state's stay-at-home order.

Experts across the spectrum concur that any reopening of the state's economy will require a robust testing regiment and ability to trace infected patients' contact with others.

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Though officials at both the state and federal level continue to discuss those principals, details - or even preliminary proposals - remain slim.

"I think people would be reassured to see our leadership come and explain a plan to them," Dr. Michael "Dee" Gunn, Professor of Immunology at Duke University, tells ABC11. "One of the things about this virus is it spreads faster than we can keep up with standard contact tracing."

The standard contact tracing, Dr. Gunn adds, is based on a review of symptoms and a series of interviews to determine where an infected person has been and with whom he/she has interacted.

"It's hard for people to expose others for Ebola because you get sick so fast you're not moving around. Here, people who are perfectly healthy and feel fine can go out and infect huge numbers of people," he explains.

According to Dr. Gunn, technology should be part of the solution, including smartphones.

"Look, here's who you are, you are safe," he says as he points to a mock app with his picture and a green checkmark. "There is no evidence you've been around anyone infected. You can go to a restaurant, you can go to the movies, you can get on an airplane. If you happen to come into contact with someone, who later turns up with symptoms, your app will alert you. You've potentially been exposed. Please self-quarantine and we will arrange to test you."

In a groundbreaking announcement this week, tech giants Apple and Google agreed to work collaboratively on a contact tracing project based on using Bluetooth technology. The companies are also vowing that "user privacy and security" are paramount in their design.

RELATED: Apple, Google to harness phones for coronavirus infection tracking during COVID-19 outbreak

"When I get on my map to find a business location, next thing I know I'm on the computer reading the news and an advertisement for that business pops up. They're already following me," Dr. Gunn quips, referring to concerns about privacy. "Everyone's like, 'Oh this is Big Brother,' and stuff like that, but I think the reality is once this gets rolling, if I have a restaurant, I'm going to want to check your status before I sit you down at a table. This will be a self-policing operation."

While the technology and apps are still in development, new tests for the coronavirus are being produced across the country, and especially in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.

While much of the testing thus far has been conducted with molecular tests, known as PCR, the momentum has shifted towards promoting what are called serological tests, or antibodies.

"If you have people who have developed immunity, they'll be at less risk of contracting the virus," Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President of Global Health at BD Technologies & Innovation, tells ABC11. "That's very different from someone who's never been infected and maybe working and still vulnerable and thus also likely to spread virus to others."

Though based in New Jersey, BD Technologies has a team of 250 researchers in RTP and have partnered with BioMedomics to produce a 15-minute antibody test that measures how someone's body might react to the virus.

Cohen, like many other health experts in public and private sectors, hopes that the mass production and easy availability of these tests will enable people to get back to work. It's possible, Cohen suggests, that employers and insurance companies could then provide access to tests much the same way they provide access to flu shots.

"The first to be tested will be health workers to determine if it's safe for them to be on the job," Cohen predicts. "Then more broadly employers will use it as a means to determine whether it's safe for their employees to return to their work at their location, office or site, or remain at home."

As for when all of this can get into action, both Cohen and Dr. Gunn agree it could be by summertime before everything is in motion together.

"Normally you have a lot more time to prove these things but people are working with urgency," Cohen says.

"It's going to take a few months, but it will be worth it," Dr. Gunn insists. "There is light at the end of the tunnel and we can see it."

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