Posted: 15th July 2020

Like many scientists, researchers in SVI’s National Serology Reference Laboratory speak a dialect of their own. 
Their vocabulary, usually hard to follow if you are not fully immersed in their work, is riddled with acronyms like NAT, QC and IVD. 
But that was before coronavirus. Today, nucleic acid testing (NAT), quality control (QC) and in vitro diagnostics (IVD) have taken on fresh relevance for everyone in the community. 
Dr Pip Hetzel, Director of the group, is passionate about the team’s work. 
“Our ability to combat the virus is directly correlated with our ability to test for it,” she says. 
“A major challenge has been our ability to perform accurate and timely testing. Without that, we are not able to track how prevalent the disease is and isolate those who are infected.” 
Pip explains that there are two different classes of tests that are used to determine if someone has been exposed to the virus. 
“The most commonly used test detects the presence of the virus itself.” 
These are carried out on a sample from a nasal and throat swab. A positive result reveals that the person carries an active infection. 
The other type of test looks for the presence of antibodies against the virus. This shows if someone has been previously exposed, or, once a vaccine is developed, if they have developed protective antibodies. 
While the frontline tests are now being carried out in a systematic way in Australia, Pip acknowledges that accessing reagents and appropriate equipment was a barrier at the beginning of the outbreak. 
“Luckily, because of the equipment and expertise in the National Serology Reference Laboratory, we were able to quickly prime ourselves to support frontline testing for some of Melbourne’s hospitals.” 
Pip says the key issue now is the antibody test. These tests (also known as serology tests) detect antibodies in the blood that have developed as a result of exposure to the virus. 
“There are some questions that need to be resolved about whether the presence of antibodies will protect against re-infection with the virus. In addition to this, the new antibody tests now flooding the market need to be evaluated.
She says that work led by Wayne Dimech in the lab will formally evaluate tests being introduced into Australia and overseas on behalf of test kit manufacturers to determine how accurate they are. The results will be shared with the World Health Organisation to ensure that substandard test kits are not on-sold into developing countries. 
Research headed by Associate Professor Rose Ffrench and Dr Kim Wilson is aimed at developing tools that can be used to confirm diagnosis and help distinguish between infection, infection resolution and vaccine-induced responses. These will also support the evaluation of a diagnostic test being developed by the Burnet Institute. 
The National Serology Reference Laboratory has three decades of expertise developed in the fight against HIV, hepatitis C and other infections. That experience learning the language of testing is what our researchers will now use to help protect Australians from COVID-19. 

For more information please see: Infectious disease.