As the coronavirus pandemic rages on in the U.S. and around the globe, more and more people are starting to question whether they may have come in contact with the virus at some point.
Whether it was a lingering cough back in February or a two-day period of feeling under the weather in April, the prospect of having unknowingly contracted the virus is not an unreasonable one, given the fact that COVID-19 has such a wide array of symptoms, and that an estimated 44 percent of those diagnosed are asymptomatic (meaning they experience no symptoms).
So, should you get a COVID-19 antibody test to be sure? Here’s what to know.
What is antibody testing All About?
Antibodies are compounds formed by the body to fight all sorts of infections, including viruses like the novel coronavirus. COVID-19 antibody tests analyze your blood for certain types of antibodies stimulated by a past COVID-19 infection.
“Some antibodies, like IgM, are made at the time of infection,” explains William Li, M.D., author of Eat To Beat Disease. “Others, like IgG, are made weeks or more later, to ‘remember’ how to fight the virus. If you are IgG-positive, it means you probably were exposed in the past.”
Doctors test for COVID-19 antibodies the same way they test for diseases like diabetes: via a finger prick or blood draw. “The finger prick test involves putting a drop of blood on a small plastic test kit,” says Dr. Li. “In a full blood draw, we send collected blood pout for lab analysis, which takes a few days.”
issues with antibody testing
As helpful as COVID-19 antibody testing sounds, it’s raised more questions than it has provided answers.
This is not uncommon with new research, says public health expert Carol Winner, M.P.H., M.S.E., founder of the physical distancing brand give space. Scientists are still trying to confirm whether the antibodies these tests capture are truly indicative of being correlated to COVID-19 infection versus infections caused by other types of coronaviruses, like the common cold.
Plus, more research will determine whether these antibodies protect you from getting the virus again—and how long that protection lasts. “Knowing the antibodies are long-lasting and protective raises our chance of [developing] an effective vaccine,” says Winner.
So, should you get the COVID-19 antibody test?
Unless you know you’ve had COVID-19 and want to donate your plasma, are undergoing surgery, or work in an industry in which you believe you could be exposing people to the virus, you do not need an antibody test, says Amy Baxter, M.D., CEO and chief medical officer of Pain Care Labs.
That being said, anyone willing to pay the price can undergo antibody testing. “If you’re not part of a research study, the test can cost around $120,” says Winner. “Don’t forget, though, that the results still do not give you a definite answer. For this reason, your doctor will likely deter you from getting tested until it is more accurate.
What to keep in mind if you get an antibody test
If you do decide to get the COVID-19 antibody test, consider the following:
1. We don’t know whether you can be reinfected with COVID-19
Due to a lack of clear data, the scientific community still has much to learn about reoccurring COVID-19 infection. “News reports from South Korea, for example, suggest the infection can reactivate before the body has cleared it,” explains Winner.
However, “it is also possible the testing [used in this case] lacked sensitivity, providing a false negative on one occasion in a patient with COVID-19, only to become positive later,” she adds.
2. It’s possible that testing could result in a false positive
Not all current antibody tests are confirmed to correlate specifically to COVID-19 versus other coronaviruses. As such, a positive antibody test could mislead you, notes infectious disease physician Amesh Adalja, M.D., Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
3. A positive antibody test does not give you immunity to coronavirus
Testing positive for antibodies does not mean you can assume you are immune. “We are still learning about the types and levels of antibodies needed for protection and how long protection lasts,” Winner says.
4. If you had COVID-19 and made a full recovery, you can donate plasma.
One of the biggest incentives for antibody testing right now? If you test positive, you can donate your plasma to help patients currently suffering from COVID-19.
You’ll want to call your local lab in advance to make sure you fit a few basic requirements, which will include a prior diagnosis confirmed by a COVID-19 test and that you have been free of symptoms for at least 14 days, Winner explains. (Note: She says you do not have to prove a negative COVID-19 test if you meet all other criteria.)
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