The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world of laboratory medicine—which has always operated in the background—into the spotlight. The laboratory’s role in healthcare means laboratory professionals and pathologists are an integral piece of the pandemic puzzle. Pathologists and laboratory professionals develop, implement, and perform diagnostic tests. But what does this mean, exactly?
Let’s talk specifically about testing for COVID-19. There are two main types of testing: reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (you may have seen this called RT-PCR) and serology testing.
RT-PCR is a technique that makes millions of copies of a section of DNA or RNA specific to the virus being tested for. Once enough copies of this genetic material are made, they can be detected using sensitive analytical equipment. This is how laboratories are able to detect the presence of virus in the patient. When someone’s test for SARS-CoV-2 virus is positive, it means they’re currently infected with the virus and can potentially infect other people.
Serology tests look for antibodies in the blood. When your body encounters a foreign invader—in this case, SARS-CoV-2—it mounts an immune response to try to kill or neutralize that invader. One part of this response are antibodies—proteins our cells generate that target a specific antigen. Serology tests generally can’t tell you if someone is currently infected, but it can tell you if someone has antibodies against a specific antigen—in this case the SARS-CoV-2 virus—which could indicate they’ve been exposed to or even sick with the virus.
Laboratory professionals and pathologists play a crucial role in making sure the right test is performed on the right patient at the right time. For COVID-19, this means they communicate with doctors and nurses to make sure RT-PCR testing is performed on patients who are suspected to currently have COVID-19 and serology testing is performed on patients that may have been infected with the virus in the past.
In addition, laboratory professionals and pathologists are integral to making sure tests accurately reflect what’s going on in the patient to ensure doctors can trust the results they generate. Laboratory tests must be:
In addition to diagnostic testing, laboratory professionals and pathologists contribute to patient treatment. This includes telling doctors which antibiotics will work for a patient’s bacterial infection, for example, or preparing units of blood for transfusions.
In cases of COVID-19, laboratories prepare and provide convalescent plasma. This is plasma taken from patients who have survived COVID-19 and so have antibodies in their blood. They donate their plasma so that it may be transfused into patients who currently have the illness. The antibodies in the donor plasma help patients fight off the infection. Blood bankers also prepare units of blood, plasma, and platelets as supportive therapy for COVID-19 patients.
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