As stay-at-home orders continue amid the COVID-19 crisis, discussions are beginning about how and when the economy can safely begin to reopen. Health officials believe those decisions must be based on data of infection rates in the population and are looking at antibody tests to help determine who has been infected, recovered and perhaps developed a natural immunity to the disease.
But as experts continue to gather information and learn more about the accuracy of tests on the market and what antibodies mean in relation to coronavirus, federal regulators and health officials are moving cautiously to determine if the tests can provide a definitive answer.
What is an antibody test and why is it important?
Antibody tests don’t identify active cases of coronavirus. Instead, using a blood sample, they look for antibodies in the immune system. If found, they can indicate whether a person was exposed to the virus, recovered, and may have acquired some natural immunity.
Understanding if someone has developed immunity is “going to be important when you think about getting people back into the workplace,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Health and one of the nation’s top doctors in the fight against coronavirus. In particular, it could help identify healthcare workers who can continue to care for patients without becoming sick themselves.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently began using antibody tests to try to determine a percentage of the population that has been exposed to and recovered from the disease. The National Institutes of Health also is testing 10,000 healthy volunteers from across the country.
What are the current challenges with antibody testing?
Based on the need for testing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April allowed test makers who met certain criteria to market antibody tests without first undergoing regulatory review. Since then, scientists have learned more about how to ensure the testing criteria give reliable results for COVID-19, as opposed to other related viruses, such as the common cold.
Some experts believe that antibodies can be present while a person is still highly infectious. Scientists are working around the clock to determine whether antibody tests can reliably indicate immunity from COVID-19—and how long immunity can last.
Can I get an antibody test?
Testing to date has been focused on people who once tested positive for COVID-19 and those in research test groups. Although no timeline is yet available for more widespread testing more tests are expected to become available in the future.
If you are currently experiencing symptoms that correspond to COVID-19, the most important step is to connect with your healthcare provider, which can be done through telemedicine, such as Memorial Hermann Virtual Care. Through these visits, you can avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office or emergency room, while discussing concerns, assessing symptoms and developing a treatment plan, as needed.