City council debates spending $250K on virus test kits

Antibody testing provides quicker, but less certain, alternative to other coronavirus tests

Transmission electron microscopic image of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Cordova City Council debated whether to spend $250,000 on coronavirus antibody testing equipment at a Friday, April 3 emergency meeting. Including shipping fees and other incidental costs, $250,000 would be sufficient to buy equipment to perform 50,000 tests, Mayor Clay Koplin said. Council neither approved nor rejected the purchase during the meeting.

Antibody tests measure the immune system’s response to a virus, and may return a false negative result if performed too soon after infection. However, they provide a cheap and quick alternative to coronavirus diagnostic tests, and are able to return a result within 15 minutes. Koplin characterized the tests not as a foolproof way to identify infected individuals, but as a tool that would be effective when used alongside other methods.

The tests would be purchased from Advin Biotech, the San Diego subsidiary of Hangzhou Biotest Biotech Co., a China-based diagnostic supply manufacturer. Delivery would provisionally be expected to take two to three weeks, Koplin said. Paying for the tests upfront would be necessary to put the city’s order in Hangzhou’s manufacturing queue, he said. However, it was uncertain whether it would be possible to cancel the order should a better alternative for testing become available after the payment was made. Fifty thousand tests was the minimum available order.

Although the test has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, placing an order now could allow the city to get its foot in the door in case demand for testing kits increases. Alternatively, the city could ask for access to antibody testing kits purchased by the state, Koplin said.

“We have an opportunity in front of us,” Koplin said. “This is how a nationwide, global crisis plays out. There’s going to be people competing for resources… When something starts to gain traction, the demand is going to spike for it.”

Some council members voiced skepticism of the test’s effectiveness.

“To me, the money’s not the overriding issue here,” Councilman Tom Bailer said. “If this is what we need, we’ll come up with the money. I have more concern that it’s not an FDA-approved product… I have concern that we haven’t reached out to other communities, whether by telephone or email, saying, ‘What are you doing?’ If this is such a great, quote unquote, ‘tool,’ you’d think they’d be all on board too.”

As of Thursday, April 2, nine coronavirus diagnostic tests had been carried out in Cordova, according to a release from the city. More diagnostic tests have not been carried out because individuals have not been sick enough to meet guidelines for testing established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the release. Diagnostic testing supplies are limited, and more tests have been requested, according to the release. As of April 3, no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Cordova have been announced.