COVID-19 Antibody Testing Brings Cautious Hope

April 27, 2020 — Jenny Cook was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. Now, the 26-year-old MBA student at Duke University is trying to put her illness to good use.

Cook, a Champaign, IL, native, enrolled in Duke’s research into a COVID-19 antibody test.

“I think it is important to participate in clinical research studies so that I can help researchers understand and fight COVID-19,” she told WebMD. “I have been lucky enough to not have any symptoms from this disease, but not everyone has been as fortunate.”

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus that sparked a global pandemic. There are more than 950,000 reported cases in the United States.

As scientists and researchers race to find diagnostic tests, vaccines, and treatments for this new virus, antibody tests, also called serological tests, are being researched and scrutinized.

The tests detect antibodies — the body’s immune response to infection — in the blood. If there are antibodies, that means the person has been exposed to the virus and may have some level of protection against reinfection.

New Concerns over Tests

But that theory was rocked late last week when a new World Health Organization guidance declared there is no proof that the presence of antibodies means a patient cannot be infected again.

“Laboratory tests that detect antibodies to [the coronavirus] in people, including rapid immunodiagnostic tests, need further validation to determine their accuracy and reliability,” the WHO says in the new guidance.

Part of the problem, the agency says, is that the antibodies found in patients’ blood may be from this new coronavirus, officially known as SARS-CoV-2. But the antibodies could also be from any of the six other known coronaviruses, including several that cause the common cold.

“People infected by any one of these viruses may produce antibodies that cross-react with antibodies produced in response to infection with SARS-CoV-2,” the WHO says.

Still, scientists around the world continue to explore antibodies as a possible sign of immunity.

Progress Made in Analysis

On Thursday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced early results of his state’s first randomized antibody testing. Of the 3,000 New Yorkers tested, about 14% were infected and developed antibodies.

In Los Angeles, some 800 county residents have visited drive-thru testing sites. According to Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, a little over 4% of adults in the county were antibody-positive.

At Duke, Thomas Denny is a professor of medicine and chief operating officer at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. The test they’re using is part of a research study to find out if a positive antibody test means future protection.

The antibody test will help us understand a term that we call ‘penetrance,’ and what that means is how much of that disease, in this case COVID, has been in the local community that you’re looking for,” he says. “That will help us understand as we get ready for what may be a second round of problems, COVID infections coming in the fall. By that point, we should know if you have antibodies, does it equate to offering protection.”

Denny doesn’t want to see antibody testing give people a false sense of security about their level of immunity and feel they can relax on things like social distancing. He urges caution until the data is clear.

“We hope that one would develop an antibody respo

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