- The town of Telluride, Colorado, was supposed to be the site of the US’s first large-scale coronavirus antibody testing project.
- The owners of biotech company United Biomedical Inc., who live in Telluride part-time, offered to test the county’s 8,000 residents for free.
- Antibody tests can reveal whether someone had COVID-19 and recovered, even if they never showed symptoms or got a diagnostic test.
- But the Telluride testing project is paused because the New York lab processing the tests is short-staffed due to coronavirus infections.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Last month, the mountain town of Telluride, Colorado, announced an exciting project: It would offer coronavirus antibody tests to every one of its county’s 8,000 residents, the first mass immunity-testing project in the US.
Antibody tests, also known as serological tests, can detect coronavirus-neutralizing antibodies in the bloodstream. A positive result indicates that a person has had the virus, even if they didn’t show symptoms or get a diagnostic test.
The tests for Telluride residents came from the biotech company United Biomedical Inc. — its owners live in Telluride part time and offered to test any resident of San Miguel County for free.
But the experiment stalled after intersecting with the national reality of the coronavirus crisis: United Biomedical’s New York lab, which was slated to process the blood samples, has been unable to complete about 75% of them due to staffing shortages caused by the outbreak.
The project was suspended indefinitely last week, though San Miguel County’s public information officer, Susan Lilly, said she hopes it can resume in the future.
“We’d love a big Easter basket full of results,” Lilly said in a briefing on local radio station KOTO on Friday. “But let’s get through this hurdle and then we’ll make the next step.”
The promise of antibody testing for a small community
Telluride sits in the Rocky Mountains near the Colorado-Utah border, about six hours from Denver. As of Monday, the county had confirmed 12 COVID-19 cases. The nearest hospital is about an hour-and-a-half away.
Because of the high number of tourists that come in and out of town during ski season, Telluride residents like Hailey Arnold, a ski instructor and barista, have been worried about the coronavirus. Arnold said she thought an illness she got in early February might have been COVID-19, but she didn’t get tested at the time.
“I’m a ski instructor and so I work with a lot of people from out of town and a lot of children that are sneezing on me, so my immune system gets pretty battered during the winter in general,” she said.
When she heard about the antibody testing project, Arnold added, “I got really excited by the whole thing.”
Serological tests offer an alluring possibility: After determining who has had the virus — and is likely immune to it, at least for a time — the recovered subset of the population may be able to leave lockdown and return to work.
“It’s something that’ll help clear up who can go back to work, who can be around other people. How do we get some semblance of normalcy again?” Hayley Nenedal, a filmmaker in Telluride, told Business Insider. “And I think a lot of people are thinking like, ‘Wow, we could possibly do something that would help other communities.'”
70 companies are developing antibody tests
About 70 test developers have been racing to develop antibody tests for commercial and clinical use, according to the Food and Drug Administration. So far, the FDA has authorized one antibody test, from Cellex, but it’s allowing many other companies to sell theirs as long as they abide by a handful of rules. The agency also relaxed its rules last month to make the process of getting emergency authorization easier for companies working on these tests.
United Biomedical Inc., which develops animal vaccines as well as diagnostic kits for human diseases, worked on antibody tests for SARS in 2003. The coronavirus antibody test it developed has been submitted to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization, but is not yet been authorized. The company is still allowed to begin distributing the tests with disclaimers, though.
That’s what its founders — Mei Mei Hu and her husband Lou Reese — decided to do in Telluride, since they live there part-time. The company’s primary facilities, however, are in New York, China, and Taiwan.
About 5,800 Colorado residents signed up to get the serological test. The plan was for each person to take it twice, a few weeks apart, to ensure the results were accurate.
The first round took place from March 26 to 28. Participants came to a high-school gym that had been temporarily converted into a testing center. They were greeted by medical technicians in Tyvek suits, wearing face shields and gloves. Cones on the ground ensured that all participants stayed 6 feet apart.
The test results were supposed to come back 48 to 72 hours after arriving at a lab in Hauppauge, New York, which was chosen because it was already in United Biomedical’s network.
But that was two weeks ago.
Samples stalled at the lab
United Biomedical’s New York lab is short-staffed due to the coronavirus outbreak. New York state has the US’s highest case total, at nearly 200,000 cases; Suffolk county, where Hauppauge is located, has nearly 22,000. Because of that, only about 1,900 test results have come back to Colorado.
Of those, 11 were positive for antibodies, and 30 were borderline. A second test is needed to confirm those results. The rest of the results were negative — including Nenedal’s and Arnold’s.
“It turns out that probably wasn’t what I went through,” Arnold said. “But it was kind of an interesting time before the test happened to be thinking about, ‘Oh, was that it?’ Or, you know, ‘Do I have the antibodies?'”
San Miguel County announced last week that it was suspending the project indefinitely, though the county said it plans to resume testing “when appropriate.” The stalled test results are slated to come back over the next few weeks.
“This pandemic has created unprecedented strains on whole systems, from PPE, to tests, to healthcare staff, and this lab is a part of that crunch,” Dr. Sharon Grundy, San Miguel County’s medical officer, said in a statement last week. “They are experiencing a bottleneck in their capacity to adequately process lab results in a reasonable amount of time.”
Hu told KOTO on Friday that United Biomedical isn’t planning to switch to another lab.
Arnold said most Telluride residents who are still waiting on their results are okay with giving the New York lab more time.
“It’s also about having a level of understanding and empathy for the scene that’s going on in New York,” she said.