The path through the pandemic is sign-posted by testing and it helps if we can all read what the signs are about.
Testing for the virus which causes COVD-19 has raised political issues and resulted in a lot of finger pointing. However, testing for a new virus such as SARS-CoV-2 is a complex process. We needed to put a system in place to test a huge number of people for something we had not previously tested for. Clinicians, researchers, and public health workers also had to make sure the tests were specific to the new virus and sensitive enough to identify those with the disease. There will be ample time over the coming months to figure out exactly what we should have done, but right now we are in the middle of getting that job done.
Here is another in our series to help get back to some of the basic concepts that will help us follow the signposts marking the pandemic. This one is all about testing. The most common test used is the PCR test which is a quick way of referring to a polymerase chain reaction test. For this new coronavirus, the test is analyzing a short sequence of RNA to detect even a low level of the virus. But there is more to testing than taking a swab and getting a result.
Ian Lewis is an Assistant Professor and Alberta Innovates Translational Health Chair at the University of Calgary. He is also a Genome Alberta funded researcher on a couple of projects that are studying (among other things) the best approaches to test for infections.
I talked to him about the diagnostic tests for COVID-19, about antibody testing, and how testing is done.