Mobile COVID-19 testing
Mobile COVID-19 testing. (Photo: Dr. Phil Levy)

Beaumont Health is launching the nation’s largest serological testing study for COVID-19 antibodies.

The battle against COVID-19 will most likely be won in a lab, and two local doctors are at the forefront of critical research and testing programs designed to unlock the mysteries surrounding the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Matthew Sims
Dr. Matthew Sims

Dr. Matthew Sims, Director of Infectious Diseases Research at Beaumont, and Dr. Phil Levy, Chief Innovation Officer of the Wayne State University Physician Group and Assistant Vice President of Translational Science and Clinical Research Innovation for Wayne State University, are leading different testing efforts designed to better understand how the virus behaves and determine who is infectious, who may be immune, how we potentially treat patients and how we navigate life with COVID-19 in our midst.

“It’s interesting times because we’ve never faced anything like this,” Levy said. “We’re really going to have to think as a collective.”

Beaumont Health is launching the nation’s largest serological testing study for COVID-19 antibodies. The health care system will test its 38,000+ employees on a voluntary basis and measure antibodies in the blood to determine a person’s immune response to the virus. Beaumont is hoping to uncover how many team members have antibodies but never showed signs of the virus. It’s believed up to 50% of those who contract COVID-19 may not experience symptoms but can still infect others.

Dr. Phil Levy
Dr. Phil Levy

Doctors are also trying to learn whether having COVID-19 antibodies protects people from becoming re-infected. Sims, the study’s principal investigator, believes it does.

“This study will help prove that antibodies protect those that have them,” he says. “It is our hope that this study provides a template for others to conduct similar research that will collectively clarify many unknowns about COVID-19.”

People who have high levels of COVID-19 antibodies in their blood may be asked to donate plasma to treat seriously ill patients. Sims says that method has worked in other countries. The study could also help determine who should be vaccinated first.

Sidney and Madeline Forbes; Nathan and Catherine Forbes; the Levy Dresner Foundation; Stephen and Bobbi Polk; Warren Rose and the Rose Family; Mickey, Steven, Margie and Edward Shapiro; and Gwen and S. Evan Weiner collectively contributed more than $3 million to support initial funding for the research.

Drive-Through, Mobile Testing and More

Across town at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit, it’s an eerie scene. White tents are set up in a row and orange cones line the entranceway. As cars pull up, workers in masks, gloves, face shields, and other protective gear approach and administer COVID-19 tests. The effort has been under way for several weeks to test first responders, health care workers and other essential employees.

“We’re doing nasal swab testing, which is what allows you to detect the virus if it’s present,” Levy explains. “Our goal is to test as many people in high-risk subgroups as possible.”

More than 3,200 symptomatic health care workers and first responders were tested in Detroit and Dearborn from March 20-April 10. Levy is overseeing that effort in partnership with the city of Detroit and others, as well as the first mobile testing service in Michigan.

Ford is providing vehicles, drivers and equipment; each vehicle has the capability of testing up to 100 people a day, with tests returned in 24-36 hours. The vehicles will be deployed to various locations, including Dickerson Detention Facility in Hamtramck, the Taylor Police Department, Kent County Jail in Grand Rapids and the Battle Creek Police Department. Homeless individuals are also being tested at a Salvation Army shelter in Detroit.

Then there are clinical trials. Wayne State University is collaborating with Henry Ford Health System, Beaumont, Ascension Michigan and Detroit Medical Center to bring large-scale COVID-19 drug trials to southeast Michigan. Numerous other trials involving Wayne State University clinical faculty are also in the works. “By joining forces we can marshal greater research capabilities to effectively test vaccines and treatments to combat this virus,” Levy says.

“We won’t know how many people need the vaccine until we know who’s had the virus.” he adds. “I think you have to test everybody. I think everybody needs to have a COVID profile.”

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