Information overload. It is as though what we hear in one ear disappears thru the other. But understanding the crucial importance of the COVID-19 antibody test can provide a more panoramic picture of the pandemic and help us move-on and get back to some normality of daily living.
To simplify information and provide brevity, here is a list of seven COVID-19 antibody facts that could better solidify the information:
- The COVID-19 nasopharyngeal swab (nose/throat) detects whether someone does or does not have an active virus infection, Currently, it is not very accurate (low sensitivity) if 30 out of 100 people with the highly contagious COVID-19 virus test “negative” and believe they do not have the infection. On the other hand, (Eurosurveillance) almost 20% of infected individuals will have no symptoms: you may have it and you don’t know it. Thankfully broader testing is becoming mainstream as we open our doors and testing expands to both “essential” and “nonessential” businesses. In addition, swabs will become more accurate as technology advances.
- Antibodies are blood proteins the body produces in response to a bacterial or viral infection. Antibodies help the fight against these invaders. The COVID-19 is a viral infection for which traditional antibiotics are not effective. Though the use of some antibiotics and anti-malarial medications are being studied, none have U.S. *FDA-approved benefits enough to eradicate the virus (but, we are getting close to an anti-viral remedy).
- Antibody tests are very helpful in determining who experienced prior COVID-19 viral infection but not very useful for early-onset (“acute”) diagnosis because of the time it takes the body to develop an antibody response. The short and quick: Antibody testing is a method of determining who has been infected in the recent past and/or the last few weeks/months. Antibody levels are measured through blood tests (serum).
Let me expand on this:
- The IgM antibody will be positive within a few days of the infection, remain elevated for 1-2 weeks then quickly disappear as the infection clears
- The IgG antibody will be positive as the infection clears and continue to rise as the body heals. Elevated IgG levels can be an indicator of protection from the virus. Within a week or two of an acute infection, there may be an overlap of both IgG and IgM in the blood then the IgG will continue to remain positive as the IgM levels decline.
- The difference between the nasopharyngeal swab and the serum antibody test is the nasopharyngeal swab detects the virus, and the blood test checks for the body’s response to the virus.
- An antibody test result could help us feel more confident to leave our homes. Optimally, the approved antibody test would need a low level of false negative results (high sensitivity). The antibody test may (along with other indicators) help determine whether someone (or groups of people) are immune and can return to work, school, athletics, restaurants, etc. It could guide us in determining whether to relax rules of social distancing and allow patients to undergo non-urgent surgical procedures or routine/preventative medical office visits. We could all experience a better hair-day once we visit our hairdressers!
For now, we let the experts work their microscopes, collect their data, and provide us with the latest updates and treatment strategies. We will all return to some kind of normalcy in the next few months as our social culture adjusts to account for some understandable germaphobia. Our government and medical leaders have begun to pave the path for future strategies in addressing the next pandemic wave whether it is another round of COVID-19 or something more destructive.
*FDA: Food and Drug Administration
**diagnostic medical tests, sensitivity is the extent to which actual positives are not overlooked (so false negatives are few), and specificity is the extent to which actual negatives are classified as such (so false positives are few
**In addition, individuals with elevated COVID-19 antibodies could offer their plasma for matched-recipients in dire need of aggressive treatment.