Covid antibody tests come to SA

Covid-19 rapid antibody test kits are now available in the country and will be a game changer in strategies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Josh Burger, the chief executive of MMed, a subsidiary of JSE-listed health company AfroCentric Group that was recently granted licensing rights to manufacture and distribute the kits, said South Africa needs to ramp up its testing capacity to deal efficiently with the pandemic.

Although the antibody tests cannot indicate immunity to the coronavirus, it is helpful in detecting how far it has spread in the population, says Burger.

The kits are about the size of a USB memory stick and use technology similar to a home pregnancy test. 

To test, a user pricks a fingertip and inserts a few drops of blood into the kit. Two drops of buffer are then dropped into the kit to allow the chemical process of identifying the antibodies to begin.

The kits provide results for two types of antibodies: immunoglobulin M (IgM) and immunoglobulin G (IgG). These antibodies are produced by the immune system to provide protection against the coronavirus. 

IgM is short-lived and remains in the body for about two to three weeks after infection has passed. IgG usually appear 14 days after the infection and can last for six months or several years, which means they are a stronger indicator of previous infection. 

Similar to a home pregnancy test, the results are indicated by coloured lines. One blue line indicates an invalid test. Two red lines indicate positive IgG presence, which means the person may have recently had an infection. Three red lines indicate the presence of both IgG and IgM, which indicates the person was infected with Covid-19 more than a month ago. 

Quinton Sofianos, the manager of a warehouse in Johannesburg, was able to discover this week that his body had developed IgG. Sofianos, who has chronic asthma, had contracted a severe case of Covid-19 in July, which required him to remain in isolation for 21 days.

After taking the antibody test using the rapid testing kits, his results came back within 15 minutes. 

But it is not known whether antibodies prevent another bout of Covid-19. The department of health’s guidelines on the use of antibody tests say there are various reasons for this, including a person’s insufficient sensitivity to antibody tests or a waning of antibodies over time and as “soon as 1-2 months in asymptomatic or mild cases”.

The mostly commonly used type of testing for Covid-19 in South Africa is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) where a patient is tested for signs of infection through nasal or throat swabs. Burger says the PCR method remains the gold standard for testing of Covid-19 because the virus is still in its early stages and active in the body. 

The rapid antibody test kits are only for healthcare practitioners and not for private home use. This is because all results of antibody testing must be recorded and reported to the National Health Laboratory Service.

MMed has already begun rolling out the kits to private healthcare groups, is in the process of finalising the distribution of the tests to public healthcare facilities and there has been interest from corporations with large workforces.

“In the mining industry, we have had orders and we are currently finalising the procurement process,” he says. 

Orders for the kits have also been received from nearby countries such as Malawi, Botswana and Mauritius.

At a cost of R199 a kit, it is more cost effective than the PCR test, which can cost up to R1 000 at private testing laboratories. MMed aims to drive down the cost to R70.

“As the volume grows on the demand … the cost of manufacturing will also go down and the price of the products is also expected to decrease, Burger says.

The MMed test kits are currently made in China by Zhejiang Orient Gene Biotech, which has intellectual rights to this technology. It takes two to five days to manufacture, which are then shipped to South Africa  the kits and can arrive in the country within 10 days. 

As of Monday, more than 4.4-million tests had been conducted in South Africa, with the infection rate at 693 359 and 17 863 people have died. 

Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the M&G

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Thando Maeko
Thando Maeko is an Adamela Trust business reporter at the Mail & Guardian

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