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Company Offers Free Covid-19 Test to Everyone in a Colorado County

Ashlee Vance

(Bloomberg) -- With America’s coronavirus testing still in shambles, one county in Colorado has decided to take matters into its own hands. Public health officials in San Miguel County have teamed up with a biotech company called United Biomedical Inc. to collect blood samples for a new Covid-19 antibody test and provide free screenings to all 8,200 people in the area.

The county is home to Telluride, a small, idyllic ski town normally packed with tourists. Now, though, it has followed many other areas around the country and adopted shelter-in-place procedures to try and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that has triggered a global pandemic. Residents face a particularly high risk in the remote area, with a large population of seniors, and officials aren’t waiting for federal intervention.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, 65 miles from a hospital,” said Dr. Sharon Grundy, the public health medical officer for San Miguel County and the medical director of primary care at the Telluride Regional Medical Center. “You have to learn how to be self-sufficient. If there is a national event going on, we hope people will show up but assume no one will.”

United Biomedical has spent years producing vaccines for animals and working on human treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The company has been around for more than three decades and has about 950 employees, mostly in China and Taiwan. Its animal vaccines have been used to protect billions of farm animals from foot-and-mouth disease and to chemically castrate pigs. It also has a history of developing blood-screening kits and a test for SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

As reports of the coronavirus appeared, the company developed a blood test to screen for Covid-19. The test has been submitted for regulatory approval under the “emergency use authorization,” but recent guidance from the Food and Drug Administration allows it to be used already, according to Mei Mei Hu, an executive and board member at United Biomedical.

The company has already validated its test on hundreds of samples taken in China, Taiwan and California and said it has a near-perfect accuracy rate. “We have good data and good manufacturing capabilities,” said Hu, a resident of Telluride. “We need to get ahead of this.” (United Biomedical has created a subsidiary called C19 to handle the virus testing operation and to cover all of the costs, and Hu is a co-founder.)

At the moment, San Miguel County’s two medical clinics have only 11 of the nasal swabs being used to test for coronavirus around the country, and officials have grown impatient. “This is bullshit,” said Grundy. “It is taking seven days to get the results back. I want to believe that the federal government is doing the best they can and doing their part. But there is a lot of anxiety and disappointment that we don’t know what the hell they are doing.”

United Biomedical manufactures its test in Long Island, New York, and has already shipped 15,000 tests to Colorado. Each person who agrees to the test will have blood drawn once, and then it’s recommended they have another blood draw about two weeks later. Unlike the nasal swabs, the blood test does not look for people who are only actively infected. Instead, it is meant to measure Covid-19 antibodies to determine if someone has been exposed to the virus, including those who have already recovered and built up an immunity to it. “If the tests come back positive-positive, that means you have had the virus and likely have some immunity to it,” Grundy said. “If it comes back negative-negative, then you are still at risk.” 

The first people to be tested will be health-care professionals, emergency responders and people in law enforcement. A mobile testing unit will then go to neighborhoods and offer the blood tests to anyone who wants them for free. The results can be returned within two hours. “We are a public health office of 2.5 people,” Grundy said. “The speed at which we can do this will depend on how many volunteers can learn to do blood draws and how many they can do per hour. We are overachievers here.”

If the program were a success, San Miguel County could theoretically build a detailed map of how the virus had spread through its community and use its isolated position in the mountains as an advantage. While the levels of immunity for people who have caught the virus remain unclear, those who have been shown to have caught it and survived relatively unscathed could be more active. “You could probably be more liberal about what you do for your family, neighbors, community and business,” Grundy said. Meanwhile, those who test negative would know to be more cautious.

United Biomedical has also begun animal tests on a vaccine for the coronavirus. It expects to have results on the tests within two weeks. If all goes well, human trails would begin quickly, Hu said. 

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