More than six weeks after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic, more than 827,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the United States. In the midst of lost jobs, a flailing economy, and nearly 46,000 COVID-19 deaths, government leaders and health officials are exploring every potential avenue to minimize the impacts of this pandemic.
This is why antibody testing has quickly become a favorite tool for doctors, hospitals, and governors all around the country.
What is Antibody Testing?
Antibody testing, also known as serologic testing, looks for the presence of antibodies in the blood. As the CDC explains, antibodies are “specific proteins made in response to infection.”
Instead of detecting the virus itself, like most tests do, antibody tests identify the body’s response to the virus by revealing markers of an immunity. Only people previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 will test positive for these markers of immunity, known as IgM and igG antibodies.
This means that COVID-19 antibody tests not only confirm suspected cases, they also reveal who unknowingly had the virus without developing symptoms.
How Can Antibody Testing Support Recovery From the Coronavirus Pandemic?
From Los Angeles to New York City, public health officials believe that antibody testing has the potential to support gradual efforts to reopen the country without compromising health and safety.
The presence of antibodies in the blood suggests that the body has built an immunity to the virus. Past COVID-19 patients who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies may be protected from future infection.
Microbiologist Florian Krammar, PhD, of Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, explained the significance of this in an interview: “If we find serologically that you are immune, it’s very unlikely that you can get reinfected, which means you can’t pass the virus on to your colleagues or to other patients.”
The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emphasizes that antibody testing is best used to study immune response to COVID-19, not definitively diagnose or exclude SARS-CoV-2 infection.
This warning is based on the fact that antibodies often develop late in the course of an infection. Early research suggests that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 don’t start producing antibodies until at least 11 to 12 days after symptoms begin. Furthermore, it’s unknown how long IgM and IgG antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 remain present in the body after the infection has cleared.
Instead of misusing antibody tests to diagnose currently infected patients, the FDA suggests that “broad use of antibody tests and clinical follow-up will provide the medical community with more information on whether or not and how long a person who has recovered from the virus is at lower risk of infection if they are exposed to the virus again.”
This is exactly why many communities, including San Miguel County in Colorado, are using antibody test results to create a clearer picture of COVID-19’s prevalence. Only with this information can government officials and health systems conduct contact tracing, create public health recommendations, and take other steps vital to reopening the country without compromising safety.
Governor Cuomo Announces Statewide Antibody Testing in New York
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced on April 19 that his state is conducting an antibody testing survey with 3,000 randomly selected people, mainly frontline workers. The goal is to extrapolate the data to determine the percentage of New York’s population that is now immune to the virus.
As Cuomo described, “This will be the first true snapshot of exactly how many people were infected by COVID-19 and where we are as a population.” He went on to explain that the statewide antibody testing survey is meant to help New York reopen and rebuild without jeopardizing the past few months of progress.
“Any plan to start to reopen the economy has to be based on data and testing, and we have to make sure our antibody and diagnostic testing is up to the scale we need so we can safely get people back to work,” Cuomo stated.
Other governors are sure to follow Cuomo’s lead. Within the next few weeks and months, antibody testing will help experts understand COVID-19 patterns and behaviors, which will in turn allow them to support recovery efforts efficiently and strategically.