The University of Arizona will produce 250,000 tests for COVID-19 antibodies that will determine whether people have been infected with the virus, potentially showing who might have immunity.
Gov. Doug Ducey and University of Arizona President Robert Robbins announced the program at a press briefing on Tuesday. Robbins said the university will make the testing available to about 60,000 students, staff and faculty at the university, while Ducey said the state will prioritize testing for frontline medical workers and first responders.
“Antibody testing is not a cure-all, but it’s an important step to … identifying community exposure, helping us make decisions about how we protect our citizens and getting us to the other side of this pandemic more quickly.”
Ducey said there are many people who were sick in January or early February who now wonder whether they actually contracted COVID-19. Health professionals across the country are also grappling with the issue of asymptomatic carriers of the virus who could unwittingly spread it without realizing they’re infected.
To reduce such transmissions, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has said Americans should wear a face mask or homemade covering when they are in public, in addition to practicing social distancing.
Robbins noted that people who are infected with the novel coronavirus begin producing antibodies within 6-10 days. With other recent viral outbreaks, people who survived their infections received at least temporary immunity. Robbins said that antibody protection lasted about three years for the SARS virus that spread in 2002 and one year for the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome that emerged in 2012.
“We think that, by doing this test, we’ll get valuable information about who has the disease and who has had it in the past and has antibody production, potentially inferring immunity,” Robbins said. “We can’t guarantee you’ll have immunity, but we need to get the data because knowledge is power, and we feel that empowering our students, our faculty and staff is really important.”
The governor said the state will work with the university to get federal approval for the tests as soon as possible. The state is providing $3.5 million in funding to the university for the tests.
Ducey said Arizona is looking to increase COVID-19 testing in other capacities, as well. He said the state has received 15 testing machines from Abbott Laboratories, which will be deployed around the state. Walgreen’s has chosen Arizona to receive two of its drive-through testing sites, he said.
The company announced earlier this month that Arizona would be home to one location.
So far, Arizona has conducted 44,096 coronavirus tests. The governor said testing capacity has increased thanks to private sector entities like Banner Health, the Mayo Clinic, LabCorp, Sonora Quest Laboratories and the Translational Genomics Research Institute. But much more is needed, Ducey said.
“There isn’t a governor in the country who doesn’t need more testing, with a greater availability of tests and more rapid turnaround for results,” he said.
As of Tuesday morning, Arizona had 3,806 confirmed coronavirus infections and 131 deaths, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Ducey spent much of Tuesday’s briefing talking about when he will end the protective measures that have shut down many Arizona businesses. Reiterating comments he made on Twitter on Monday, Ducey said he wants to reopen the state’s economy as soon as possible – but not until it’s safe to do so.
“Of course we should be talking about opening things up, and I’ve been thinking about opening things up every day while public health came first,” Ducey said. “There’s just no way we can continue like this forever.”
Ducey has ordered that businesses deemed nonessential close their doors to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, an unprecedented 353,000 Arizonans filed for unemployment benefits in March and the first two weeks of April.
The governor’s executive order closing down wide swaths of the private sector and requiring Arizonans to stay home in most circumstances are active through April 30. Ducey said he’ll extend them if need be, but is hopeful that won’t be the case.
“It’s too early right now for me to say there’s something magical about May 1. Of course, I’m hopeful. I want to be aspirational on this. But just as I’ve made every responsible decision for the state of Arizona without regard to what other states were doing along the way, I want to make every responsible decision for Arizona without regard to what other states are doing,” he said.
Ducey tapped Arizona Commerce Authority CEO Sandra Watson and Debbie Johnson, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, to lead the state’s outreach to hard-hit sectors of the economy such as lodging, retail, restaurants and tourism, to get input and recommendations on the eventual reopening of the economy.