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UArizona, with state funds, begins COVID-19 antibody tests

Graduate student Tyler Ripperger in Janko Nikolich-Žugich lab at the University of Arizona puts plates into a 37 degrees Celsius bath to allow for optimal detection conditions. (Photo: Kris Hanning/University of Arizona Health Sciences)

The University of Arizona has started analyzing blood samples from hundreds of thousands of Arizonans to determine who has developed antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19. The state of Arizona is providing $3.5 million to test 250,000 health care workers and first responders throughout Arizona.

To lay the foundation for successful statewide implementation, a first phase of testing began late last month in Pima County for 3,000 health care workers and first responders. Using separate funding, approximately 1,500 members of the general public in Pima County, including university students currently residing on campus or in the county, also are being tested to provide a measure of comparison to the health care worker and first responder groups.

Testing for the remainder of the state expanded May 7 to health care workers and first responders throughout Arizona.

What are antibodies?

The COVID-19 antibody tests, which can identify who has developed antibodies to the virus, build upon the work of UArizona Health Sciences researchers Deepta Bhattacharya, Ph.D., associate professor in the College of Medicine Tucson’s department of immunobiology, and Janko Nikolich-Žugich, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of immunobiology.

Antibodies are produced by the immune systems about a week after infection.

“Antibodies are proteins that float in our blood,” said Nikolich-Žugich, who also is co-director of the UArizona Center on Aging. “Good antibodies attach to the virus and whisk it away, preventing it from binding to our cells and getting inside.”

Current estimates suggest that as many as 50% of people who have been exposed to the virus have experienced few to no symptoms and could have been unwittingly transmitting the virus in the community.

The presence of COVID-19 antibodies means the immune system mounted a response against the virus. Experts do not yet know the amounts of antibodies that are required to fully prevent subsequent infections, but there might be some level of protection. Because we still do not know enough about the virus, protection should not be assumed.

First in the nation

The initial wave of tests will reach health care workers and first responders whose increased exposure to pathogens puts them at higher risk for infection.

“We’re going to be the first to undertake statewide testing of all health care workers and first responders,” says Michael D. Dake, senior vice president for health sciences. “This is critical to understanding what current immunity might be in our community and state, and it’s something no one else is doing.”

The road ahead: Pushing for knowledge

With so few people in Arizona receiving the  COVID-19 diagnostic test as of late April, there was little data on exactly how hard the virus had hit the state. Health care providers and first responders, whose jobs put them directly in COVID-19’s line of fire, especially need a better understanding of their exposure to the virus and their immunity to it.

“We expect it’s going to be eye-opening,” Nikolich-Žugich said as the project launched last month. “We certainly expect that exposure to the virus among front-line health care workers and first responders is going to be significantly higher than the general community.”

“This is a great opportunity to participate in something that will add to understanding the virus across the whole country, if not the world,” Dake added. “People are literally working 24/7 to get this project up and running , pushing, pushing, pushing.”

Sonora Quest, Walgreens also testing

In partnership with the state, Sonora Quest Laboratories announced April 24 it will offer antibody testing starting with 1,000 to 3,000 tests per day. Sonora Quest now offers antibody testing to consumers without needing a provider’s order or insurance in Arizona.

Sonora Quest also continues to offer diagnostic swab testing for active COVID-19 infection. For masking requirements and other safety procedures, visit

Walgreens also is offering drive-through testing at nine locations in Arizona, including 10315 E. Broadway in Tucson, for those who meet Centers for Disease Control criteria.

To determine eligibility, complete an online screening at www.walgreens.com/findcare/covid19/testing.