A major challenge facing policymakers has been how to carefully control the spread of COVID-19 while allowing society to return to some level of normal function.
JAPAN Forward caught up with Professor Ryuichi Morishita at Osaka University for an interview on June 24 to learn what can be done to make testing more accessible and eventually facilitate society’s return to daily business.
Professor Morishita is recognized as the research scientist at the forefront of Japan’s race for a vaccine. He is the founder and medical advisor of Anges Inc. a private biotech company.
However, this company is also carrying out clinical trials for the approval of an antibody test called 「Coronavirus IgG/IgM Antibody (COVID-19) Test Cassette」produced by Prometheus Bio, a company from China.
Generously sharing his time, Professor Morishita explained the types of coronavirus testing available now, and then went on to describe how mass antibody testing could be the key to bringing us to a new norm before a vaccine reaches the general public.
To check whether someone is currently infected, normally it’s custom to carry out a polymerase chain reaction test, known as PCR, using either a saliva sample or a swab from the back of the nose.
This test however can be time consuming to process, meaning that it only gets carried out when there is a concrete suspect of infection, and it can’t be carried out in the same way that shop assistants check your body temperature upon entering a shop.
Antibody testing, on the other hand, looks at whether you have contracted the infection in the past. In the past experts like Professor Tasuku Honjo have pointed out that antibody tests while useful in tracing past infections, are sometimes known to not be very sensitive.
However, Professor Morishita was adamant that antibody testing could be a stepping stone to a normal way of life if used correctly, stating: “The combination of PCR and Antibody testing could be the new way forward.”
According to Professor Morishita, currently antibody testing is mainly carried out on a limited scale in studies to estimate whether the wider population has developed immunity, but is not commonly used as a means of monitoring the impact of the virus more broadly.
Professor Morishita pointed out that, up to now, one challenges even now is that the positive result is difficult to interpret, however that didn’t stop the test from being a valuable tool for society to fight the virus, as a negative result could be considered quite accurate in spotting those who had never contracted the virus in the previous week.
“The problem with the current antibody testing is that positive results aren't always clear…However, a negative is a negative, [it’s accurate].. If you just look at the negatives for a picture of the current dispersion of the virus, there could be wide benefits for economic activity, and I think there should be wider implications.”
Morishita continued. “You could administer it regularly, even in a factory, because it only takes five minutes. And should someone test positive, you will know precisely when that person was infected, and potentially where they contracted the virus.”
In essence, a very short time frame approach would also be possible. This is because, when testing for antibodies, should you test positive two positive results are positive: IgM and IgG.
The two look at two different types of antibodies, one which is formed in the short long term and one long term.
Therefore, should your short term antibody be detected, the antibody test would be able to catch a very recent infection in your blood stream, and be able to take relatively prompt action where perhaps PCR test had not been prescribed or expected.
However, particularly with negative results, broader testing using this approach would help dispel the reticence of people about getting tested and fear of stigma from a positive test, and allow everyone to be at least a little more at ease.
Professor Morishita restated the concept in a way everyone can understand, pointing out: “In theory, if we all took the test and all resulted negative, we could all go together to sing karaoke without the fear of infecting each other, if we follow a regular life style.”
He suggested that first hand experience might help convey the simplicity of the antibody test, and administered it to me.
A small sample of blood was quickly taken from my fingertip, garnering even a surprised “that was a lot of blood” from Professor Morishita. Because it was a blood sample, there is no fear of contamination. Wasting no time, the results came back (negative) in only about five minutes.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the mayor of Osaka, Ichiro Matsui prior to the impending summer holidays, expressed the idea that antibody testing could be widely used to check people’s immunity.
Airlines have already started introducing antibody testing upon boarding planes, with Lufthansa and Qatar just being two examples out of many.
Professor Morishita also expressed optimism, as companies are starting to use antibody tests, but reiterated that regular follow-ups are essential:
“The test is starting to be used by companies for assessing risk. However, follow-up [tests] are very important.”
Especially with cases growing steadily in Tokyo, Osaka and large cities, something needs to be done about a quicker, safe way in which to track infections, while at the same time avoiding that the economy comes to a total standstill.
Antibody tests might just be another tool we can use to do this.
Author: Arielle Busetto