NewsCentral & Southern Arizona NewsTucson News


UA Med School dean: Determining coronavirus immunity is critical to future fight, re-opening economy

Posted at 9:40 PM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 01:32:28-04

TUCSON, AZ — As politicians debate reopening the economy, medical professionals are racing to find a vaccine or drug to combat COVID-19.

The University of Arizona announced this week they have created antibody tests, which could possibly identify those with immunity.

For most of us, the coronavirus was something we heard for this first time in 2020.
Dr. Michael Abecassis though, wrote his masters' thesis on a coronavirus in 1980 - and he is viewing this current pandemic through an experienced surgeon's eyes.

"I went to the international corona-virology workshop in 1986," said Dr. Abecassis, the Dean of UA College of Medicine - Tucson.

But Abecassis says the workshop was not well attended, because before SARS coronavirus only affected animals.

"This is a zoonotic virus, none of us have immunity to this virus. That’s what makes it so dangerous," said Dr. Abecassis.

The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2, has been one of the world's leading killers in 2020. More than 140,000 people have been killed by COVID-19 worldwide, with 150 being Arizonans.

"For immunocompromised patients, it’s kind of a double whammy," said Abecassis, noting that they are more susceptible for another type of virus to attack in conjunction.

"Do we know for certain if those who have already gotten COVID-19, have immunity now," asked ABC15's Zach Crenshaw.

"We don’t. We know that you can get antibodies against a virus," said Dr. Abecassis. "The real question is, how protective are these antibodies? Number two is, if they are protective, how long does that protection last. We really don’t know that either."

"Is it the kind of antibody that is going to protect you against getting infected again? I mean it should, we have no reason to believe it won’t behave that way. Do we know for a fact? No," said the dean.

The University of Arizona is hoping to expedite that discovery by creating 250,000 antibody tests.

The tests will be crucial in determining "how many of us have been infected. Who knows it could be 10%, could be 20%, 50% 60%."

The higher that number, the better, when it comes to reopening businesses.

"First responders and healthcare workers are going to be the most important to test," said the doctor. "If they have antibody I think you’re going to feel a lot better about having them go back into the workforce."

But even if there is immunity from re-infection, Dr. Abecassis points out that a lot of people will still be susceptible to contracting COVID-19 for the first time when the economy reopens.

So he says people should get used to seeing masks in public, and social distancing for the distant future.

"We are going to have to reopen this economy. And I think when we go back, it’s not going to go back to the way it’s always been. People are going to have to do social distancing, wear masks, and be careful," he said. "No matter how long you wait to do that, I think you’re going to have to do it that way."

The university is still working out a lot of the details surrounding the antibody tests.

A spokesperson told ABC15:

"We are working with the state and other partners to finalize the process for people to register for an antibody test blood draw. Details about the registration, sample collection and individual reporting process will be forthcoming, and we will share them as soon as possible."

They will prioritize medical workers and first responders when it comes to getting a test.