Story at a glance
- Some cases of the novel coronavirus are so mild that patients do not exhibit symptoms.
- Public health officials are looking for more information about the population of asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.
- Antibody tests, which are just now becoming available, could reveal whether or not a person has had the coronavirus.
The symptoms of the novel coronavirus can be excruciating, even fatal, in the most severe cases. But in mild cases you might not even know you were sick. Or perhaps you thought it was allergies or a head cold, which went away in a few days.
Research suggests anywhere from 25-78 percent of people who have contracted COVID-19 are asymptomatic. So how do you know if you’ve had the coronavirus? The answer is in a small particle that may or may not be floating around in your bloodstream: an antibody.
Antibodies are proteins in your bloodstream that your body produces to counteract bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances. But in order for your body to create antibodies to fight an infectious disease such as COVID-19, it has to have been exposed to it. Testing positive for the antibody indicates that you’ve had the coronavirus in your bloodstream, either by contracting the disease or through a vaccine.
But since there are no COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for public use, testing positive would mean that you’ve contracted COVID-19.
On April 10, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), 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 availability varies across localities.
The test, called 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 you will be protected from future infections.
If you test positive for antibodies, it’s likely that you’ll want to get tested to see if the coronavirus is still active in your body. If you test negative, you’ve likely recovered, but that doesn’t mean you aren't contagious. It can take up to six weeks to clinically recover, during which viral transmission can still occur as the body sheds the coronavirus through saliva, feces, urine and other discharge. So do your best to self-isolate until a medical professional tells you it's safe.
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