Story at a glance
- Public health officials are saying a large number of antibody tests could be available “within a period of a week or so.”
- Instead of detecting the virus itself, the tests identify antibodies the immune system generates to fight COVID-19.
- Data from antibody tests would show how many people have contracted the disease and recovered and also whether previously infected people would be vulnerable to reinfection.
As some Americans are coming up on a month under stay-at-home orders, many are wondering when life will go back to normal. And while things may never fully go back to how they were before the pandemic, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) and the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has said he expects a “real degree of normality” by the November elections.
So how do we get there? Antibody tests could be an initial step towards gathering enough information to determine how states can safely proceed with lifting their pandemic restrictions. These tests identify antibodies the immune system generates to fight COVID-19.
What’s an antibody? It’s a protein in your bloodstream that your body produces to counteract bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances. The protein will attach onto the foreign particle, identifying it for your immune system to destroy. But in order for your body to create antibodies for a disease such as COVID-19, it has to have been exposed to it. This is also how vaccines work, by introducing a small enough dose of a weakened infectious disease to your body, so it can be prepared to fight them.
How does the test work? A serology test will check for an immune response to the novel coronavirus using a blood sample. A rapid diagnostic test, which takes anywhere from 10-30 minutes, will look for the presence of any antibodies at all, while a neutralization assay, which can take up to five days, can give more information, such as whether the patient will be protected from future infections.
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What does it mean if you test positive for COVID-19 antibodies? Generally, when you test positive for an antibody, it means you’ve had it in your bloodstream, either by contracting the disease or through a vaccine. Since there are no COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for public use, testing positive would mean that you’ve contracted COVID-19, even if you never showed any symptoms or have recovered entirely.
Does that mean you’re immune to COVID-19? Immunity means your body has enough antibodies to resist COVID-19 successfully, but there’s no magic number. Whether or not you’re immune will depend on a number of factors in addition to the test results, including how strong your antibodies are and the other parts to your immune system’s response.
How accurate is the test? It may depend on which test you take. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only authorized one test under an Emergency Use Authorization, but has allowed some developers to start distributing their tests without review. There have also been reports in the United Kingdom of false positive and false negative results, suggesting there are still flaws with the tests that have been developed.
Will I have to pay for the test? Health insurers will be required to cover the cost of these tests in addition to tests for current infection according to new guidelines announced by the federal government.
So when can I get tested? On April 10, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) said they were testing 10,000 healthy volunteers around the country for antibodies. Fauci told CNN a large number of antibody tests could be available “within a period of a week or so.” Testing has begun across the country, including in California and Michigan, but varies across localities.
Can I leave my house now? Not quite. The research is still in its preliminary stages and public health officials are just beginning to collect information about potential levels of immunity. For now, sit tight, and listen to the guidelines from your local government and public health officials.
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