Schwan’s concerns about inaccurate or unreliable COVID-19 serology tests were supported when the FDA issued more restrictive rules for these medical laboratory tests on May 4

Last month, Roche Group CEO Severin Schwan characterized some COVID-19 antibody tests as a “disaster” and questioned the ethics of some manufacturers of these tests.

During a conference call with investors about the company’s first-quarter results, Schwan said of the recently-launched COVID-19 antibody assays, “These tests are not worth anything, or have very little use,” according to reporting from Reuters and other publications. “Some of these companies, I tell you, this is ethically very questionable to get out with this stuff.”

On May 3, Roche announced that its own Elecsys Anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody test for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, had obtained an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In its news release, Roche stated that “the serology test has a specificity greater than 99.8% and sensitivity of 100% (14 days post-PCR confirmation).”

In a separate interview with Bloomberg, Schwan said about antibody testing, “It is very important to pick the right test and then to validate those tests with enough patients.” He then returned to the issue of poor quality in some antibody tests for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, saying, “Unfortunately, there are a number of tests already out there in the market which are not reliable simply because they haven’t been tested sufficiently.”

In reference to the initial release of serological COVID-19 antibody tests, CEO Severin Schwan (above) said during Roche Holding’s first quarter earnings call that, “It’s a disaster. These tests are not worth anything, or have very little use,” reported CNBC. He added, “This is really what matters. Every kind of amateur could produce an antibody test. The two of us could do it overnight in the garage. That’s not the problem. The question is, does it really work? And for that, you have to do testing and validation.” (Photo copyright: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann.)

A ‘Wild West’ of Unregulated Assays

Prior to issuing tougher rules for how a manufacturer can market a COVID-19 serological test, the FDA had listed about 200 serological tests designed to identify antibodies produced by the human immune system in response to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. This is the process of seroconversion, which is the development of detectable antibodies in a patient’s blood against a pathogen. Detection of IgG antibodies indicates exposure to SARS-CoV-2, according to ARUP Laboratories.

Public health experts have raised questions about the proliferation of such tests for the new coronavirus. Under the FDA’s previous March 16 rules—which were more relaxed than those FDA applied when granting EUAs—the agency was swamped with requests to review more than 200 COVID-19 antibody tests. The looser regulations resulted in nearly no oversight of those tests, reported the Associated Press (AP).

In comments to the AP, Eric Blank, DrPH, Senior Director of Public Health Systems and Programs for the Association for Public Health Laboratories (APHL), said, “Right now it’s a wild west show out there. It really has created a mess that’s going to take a while to clean up.”

“In the meantime,” Blank added, “you’ve got a lot of companies marketing a lot of stuff and nobody has any idea of how good it is.” Blank confirmed to Dark Daily that he made these comments and stands by them.

Calls for Closer Scrutiny of Serological Antibody Tests

In response to the FDA’s March 16 rules for COVID-19 serology tests, APHL requested the federal agency to review its looser approach to reviewing these tests. The impact of the FDA’s much tougher COVID-19 serological testing rules released on May 4 was immediate.

In a press release issued on May 2, the FDA said, “to date, the FDA has authorized 105 tests under EUAs, which include 92 molecular tests, 12 antibody tests, and one antigen test.”

Clinical laboratories in the United States still face difficult challenges if they plan to launch their own COVID-19 serology testing programs. They must select one or more tests from among the antibody and antigen tests that have an FDA EUA. However, data for each of these tests is not as comprehensive as is the data for diagnostic test kits reviewed by the FDA and cleared for market under the pre-market approval process.

To help clinical lab professionals as they evaluate different COVID-19 serology tests to buy, validate, and perform in their labs, Dark Daily and its sister publication, The Dark Report, produced a free webinar on May 21, titled “Quality Issues Your Clinical Laboratory Should Know Before You Buy or Select COVID-19 Serology Tests.”

This webinar was conducted by James O. Westgard, PhD, and Sten Westgard of Westgard QC, Inc., and the full program is available for free download by clicking here, or by placing this URL in your web browser: https://www.darkdaily.com/webinar/quality-issues-your-clinical-laboratory-should-know-before-you-buy-or-select-covid-19-serology-tests/.

In the webinar recording, the Westgards provide a detailed overview of what elements are required for a clinical lab to have confidence that its COVID-19 serology testing program is producing accurate, reliable results. They explain that labs must understand the unique aspects of the populations they are testing in their communities. All of these factors can then be used by labs to evaluate the different COVID-19 serology tests available for them to purchase, and to select the test that best fits their lab’s capabilities and the characteristics of the patient population that will be tested.

Another important requirement for clinical laboratories to understand is the list of steps necessary to bring up a COVID-19 serological testing program. That starts with validating the test, then bringing it into daily production. As that happens, issues associated with quality control (QC), proficiency testing (PT), and regulatory compliance take center stage, so that the clinical lab has high confidence in the accuracy and reproducibility of the COVID-19 serology test results they are using in patient care or in support of employers who are screening employees for COVID-19.

To address what labs should do after they purchase a COVID-19 serology test and prepare for validation and production, Dark Daily and The Dark Report have arranged for James O. Westgard, PhD, and Sten Westgard to conduct a second free webinar on June 11, 2020, at 1:00 PM EDT. This webinar is titled “Achieving High Confidence Levels in the Quality and Accuracy of Your Clinical Lab’s Chosen COVID-19 Serology Tests, featuring James Westgard, PhD.”

To register for the June 11 webinar, click here, or place this URL in your web browser: https://www.darkdaily.com/webinar/achieving-high-confidence-levels-in-the-quality-and-accuracy-of-your-clinical-labs-chosen-covid-19-serology-tests/.

New COVID-19 Intelligence from Dark Daily

Announcing Dark Daily’s new COVID-19 STAT Intelligence Briefings! This free service for clinical laboratories, anatomic pathology groups, and diagnostics companies features:

  • daily breaking news,
  • business intelligence, and
  • innovations that clinical labs are using to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This critical information includes effective ways labs can restore their cash flow to pre-pandemic levels and get test claims paid by government and private payers.

One popular feature is the COVID-19 Live! conference calls that happen every Tuesday and Thursday for 30 minutes at 1 PM, EDT. Visit the COVID-19 STAT Intelligence Briefings website and join us for the live calls.

—Joseph Burns

Related Information:

Roche CEO Calls Some COVID-19 Antibody Tests a ‘Disaster’ and Questions Makers’ EthicReuters

Roche CEO Blasts Faulty Coronavirus Tests While Touting Own Product

Roche CEO Calls Some Covid-19 Antibody Tests a ‘Disaster’ and Questions Makers’ EthicsCNBC

Coronavirus Antibody Blood Tests Arrive in ‘Wild West’ Marketplace

The ‘Wild West’ for Antibody Tests

Everything We Know About Coronavirus Immunity and Antibodies—and Plenty We Still Don’t

The Next Frontier in Coronavirus Testing: Identifying the Full Scope of the Pandemic, Not Just Individual Infections