An emergency room physician has started a mobile coronavirus testing site offering both the nasal swab test for COVID-19 and an antibodies test to see if a patient previously had the disease.

The roaming site, located this week at the Los Patios event venue in Northeast San Antonio, will perform both tests for $149, said Dr. Luke Berry, who founded COVID Drive Up, a COVID-19 mobile testing unit.

Berry, an emergency room physician, told the Rivard Report that he organized the drive-up testing site after many people seeking COVID-19 tests were denied because their symptoms didn’t meet the stringent testing criteria, which includes fever, dry cough, and often travel abroad or contact with someone diagnosed with the virus.

Others are seeking antibody testing to see if they previously contracted the disease but recovered before being diagnosed.

Both tests are performed while the patient remains in their car. The COVID-19 test, which involves a nasal swab, is processed in an off-site laboratory with results delivered in three to five days. The antibody test is a finger prick to test blood. That sample is processed in an on-site lab, and results are returned to the patient after about five minutes.

“Providing both [antibody and COVID-19] tests are important because it gives you a much more accurate picture of whether you’ve been exposed in the past or are currently carrying viral particles,” Berry said. “We want to give people more information so they can make good choices” and have peace of mind knowing more about their exposure to the virus.

As health care workers and researchers are racing to fill the gaping holes left by shortfalls in diagnostic tests for currently infected patients, many are hopeful that testing for antibodies – proteins made by the immune system to protect the body against infections – will help determine not just how many people are sick but also how many have encountered the virus at all.

However, research on whether someone who is antibody-positive is immune from the illness is in its early stages and inconclusive, and some researchers also question the accuracy of the tests, of which only three have received approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dr. Junda Woo, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District’s medical director, said that “until the performance characteristics of [antibody] tests have been evaluated, it is possible that positive results from such testing may be due to past or present infections with a coronavirus other than [the virus that causes COVID-19].”

COVID Drive Up founder Luke Berry stands in front of the mobile testing site. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The controversy surrounding the accuracy of antibody testing is valid, Berry said, “because a lot of tests being used are from outside the U.S. and are of questionable quality.”

“I did a lot of market research and found the best U.S.-based company with a reputable lab and a longstanding reputation for quality control, and reviewed all clinical data and literature to make sure they are as accurate as they say they are,” Berry said.

Berry declined to disclose the name of the pharmaceutical company the organization is obtaining antibody test kits from, citing concerns the company would become “overwhelmed with those rushing to get the tests.” The mobile testing site is administering nasal swabs to help ensure testing accuracy, he said.

Metro Health has been the main source for most of Bexar County’s testing since the mid-March opening of its free, appointment-only facility at Joe Freeman Coliseum, where more than 400 tests can be administered per day. That site combined with several area private labs has conducted more than 14,000 COVID-19 tests. On Tuesday, Metro Health Director Dawn Emerick announced the expansion of at least two more sites, including at a Walmart Supercenter on San Antonio’s West Side, and a Southside location of Texas MedClinic urgent care.

But in a county of more than 2 million residents, providing testing for everyone who needs it or wants it has proven impossible with current testing resources and ultimately has opened an entrepreneurial space for people like Berry to fill.

Texas lags in coronavirus testing, with 216,783 tests administered as of Wednesday, according to state figures. That continues to amount to a fraction – less than 1 percent – of Texas’ nearly 29 million people, fueling concerns about how state leaders can track the virus or know the full extent of the outbreak.

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Berry said the test site, run by him and three medical technicians, currently has the capacity to test 30 people per day but will increase to 100 people per day next week. It encourages appointments through its website, but also will accept unscheduled drive-ups.

Berry, who recently obtained a license to operate the lab, said the site will change locations “depending on the response” they see at each location. It will stay at its Los Patios location near Loop 410 and Starcrest Drive through Saturday with hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Monday, it will relocate to Buck & Doe’s Mercantile, an indoor shooting range on U.S. Highway 281 in far North San Antonio. The lab accepts cash or credit card, and no insurance is needed.

COVID Drive Up will follow state law and report its test results to the local health department. The results will be included in Metro Health’s daily tally of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Last week, Christus Health announced it was offering antibody testing for patients, caregivers, and employees at its various facilities throughout the U.S., including 42 in Bexar County, in an effort to safely resume nonemergency medical procedures.

“Testing will play a huge role in fighting the pandemic in our community,” Berry said. “We need more testing, more data to study, to get a clearer picture of what we’re up against. And once we can do that, we can think about restarting the economy. But it all begins with testing.” 

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.