NEW YORK — For the first time ever, scientists have developed a universal coronavirus antibody test. Researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and SunYat-Sen University in China say the new exam is capable of detecting and differentiating between all known human-infecting coronaviruses, even the newest SARS-CoV-2 strains and its mutations.
The word “coronavirus” was hardly part of most people’s daily vocabulary before the spring of 2020, but coronaviruses in general are nothing new. The SARS epidemic of 2002 and the MERS outbreak in 2012 are just two examples of coronavirus strains predating SARS-CoV-2, the type causing COVID-19. Right now, false positives on COVID-19 tests are a real problem due to all the genetic overlap among different coronaviruses. This new test can help change all that.
How does a universal COVID test work?
The screening, a HCoV-Peptide array, consists of an astounding three million immune markers placed on a single glass chip. Researchers identified 29 immune signatures pertaining specifically to SARS-CoV-2. It’s those signatures, or peptides, that laid the groundwork for the universal test.
To start, study authors analyzed blood samples taken from people with mild, severe, or no symptoms stemming from their COVID infection. Scientists also took blood samples from people not exposed to the coronavirus and people who had only been exposed to SARS-CoV-1 or other seasonal strains.
It was those samples that allowed researchers to settle on the 29 peptides that showed the “strongest and most specific reactivity” to SARS-CoV-2. Study authors then tested the array and validated the results using more blood samples.
Researchers say the new test shows 98 percent accuracy regarding both specificity and sensitivity. Coronavirus immune signatures appear in the body days after infection and linger for around six to seven months post-recovery.
“This work will allow us and others to build inexpensive, easy-to-use blood tests that can provide data for exposure as well as immunity,” says study author Nischay Mishra, PhD, a Columbia assistant professor of epidemiology, in a university release.
“This work with our colleagues at SunYat-Sen, led by Professor Jiahai Lu, and with Nimble Therapeutics, underscores the importance to public health of global collaboration and partnerships with industry in addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” adds senior and corresponding author W. Ian Lipkin, MD.
The study is published in Communications Biology.