- New tests can identify people who have recovered from COVID-19 by searching for coronavirus antibodies in the blood.
- “A rather large number” of these tests will be available in the US “within a period of a week or so,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
- Fauci has expressed confidence that recovered coronavirus patients will be immune, though further research is needed to be sure.
- That means identifying people who have recovered is critical in getting people back to work and school.
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The restrictions promote social distancing to “flatten the curve,” or slow the coronavirus’ spread to avoid overwhelming healthcare systems. But keeping so many people at home is tanking the global economy and depriving students of education. More than 10% of American workers have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks, and the US restaurant industry had already hemorrhaged about $US25 billion by March 22. Major universities have switched to remote classes, and public schools are closed indefinitely in states including California, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
Plus, of course, staying at home is making many of us lonely and stir-crazy. So the question on many people’s minds is: When will the lockdowns end?
Experts can’t say for sure. The US’s social-distancing guidelines have been extended through at least April 30. According to Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, some relief could come in mid-May. But epidemiologists at Harvard University think intermittent lockdowns may need to extend into 2022, with social-distancing measures in place 25% to 70% of the time.
However, a new antibody test rolling out in the US within weeks offers a glimmer of hope. These tests will be able to tell whether a person has already had COVID-19, regardless of whether they ever showed symptoms. A positive result would mean they’re probably immune.
“Within a period of a week or so, we’re going to have a rather large number of tests that are available,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Friday.
Widespread antibody testing could divide America into two groups: the vulnerable and the recovered. The latter could slowly go back to work, breathing life into the US economy and helping us get back on track before a vaccine becomes available.
Identifying people who are immune
The coming serological tests use a few drops of your blood to determine whether you have antibodies for the coronavirus. If so, your body has built up immunity – suggesting that you’ve recovered, even if you never received a positive diagnosis.
Antibody tests differ from the diagnostic tests used to determine whether someone has an active COVID-19 infection. The latter involves taking samples of mucus and saliva and running a test in a lab to see whether those samples contain the coronavirus’ genomic sequence. The results can take one to two days.
A serological test, on the other hand, can tell within minutes whether a person has coronavirus antibodies – similar to the way home pregnancy tests and HIV antibody tests work. A kit includes a needle (to prick your finger), a 3-inch mixing stick, and a test solution.
It’s like dusting for its fingerprints after a crime, rather than catching the virus in the act.
Antibody tests in the works
On March 26, Henry Schein announced the availability of hundreds of thousands of antibody tests in the US that can deliver results within 15 minutes. The company said it expected “significantly increased availability” in April.
In Colorado, United Biomedical is working with one county to test 8,000 residents for coronavirus antibodies.
Other US companies are already selling antibody tests abroad. The California biotech company Biomerica sells coronavirus antibody tests for less than $US10 in Europe and the Middle East, while Chembio Diagnostics, a medical-device company based in New York, is sending its antibody tests to Brazil and plans to study them in the US, Reuters reported last month.
The UK government bought millions of at-home antibody tests, but found that they aren’t accurate enough to distribute.
Australia, meanwhile, has ordered 1.5 million tests. Scientists at Germany’s Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research also want to send out hundreds of thousands of antibody tests over the coming weeks to residents,Der Spiegel magazine reported on March 27. Germany might even issue “immunity certificates” based on the results.
Gerard Krause, the epidemiologist leading the project, told Der Spiegel that people who are immune “could be given a type of vaccination card that, for example, allows them to be exempted” from restrictions on their movement and travel.
Fauci, too, told CNN that there could be “merit” to the idea of certificates of immunity in the US, adding: “This is something that’s being discussed.”
‘The first people to go back to normal life’
As antibody tests start to be distributed, experts will be able to identify people who have most likely developed some level of immunity to the coronavirus.
In an interview on March 26, Fauci said he was confident that recovered coronavirus patients would have immunity, adding that he’d be “willing to bet anything that people who recover are really protected against reinfection.”
That means people who’ve recovered could safely return to work or school.
“Ultimately, this might help us figure out who can get the country back to normal,” Florian Krammer, a professor in vaccinology at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, told Reuters in March, adding that “people who are immune could be the first people to go back to normal life and start everything up again.”
Krammer and his colleagues gave an overview of their own COVID-19 serological test in a recent study, though it has yet to be peer-reviewed.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases professor at Vanderbilt University, told Reuters that serological tests would be appealing to political and business leaders alike.
“These tests would be very attractive if they’re cost-effective, readily available, and easy to do,” he said.
Antibody tests would also give experts a better sense of how bad the pandemic really is
One of the biggest challenges surrounding the outbreak has been experts’ inability to accurately assess how many people have been infected. That’s imperative because the data informs death rates and tells experts whether we are approaching “herd immunity,” the point at which the virus can no longer spread easily because enough people are immune.
The diagnostic testing we have now isn’t enough to give experts a clear sense of the true case totals, because many people who likely have COVID-19 aren’t being tested. In New York City, which has about 20% of the US’s coronavirus cases, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has told New Yorkers who think they have mild cases to stay home and not seek care (or tests).
“If you think you have COVID-19 and your illness is mild, you do not need to see your health care provider and you will not be tested,” the department’s site said.
What’s more, between 25% and 50% of people infected with the virus show no symptoms at all, according to Fauci. Almost all of those asymptomatic people are not included in official counts either, but an antibody could help identify them.
“As we get to the point of at least considering opening up the country as it were, it’s very important to appreciate and to understand how much that virus has penetrated this society,” Fauci told CNN. “Because it’s very likely that there are a large number of people out there that have been infected, have been asymptomatic and did not know they were infected.”
The benefits of serological tests cannot be overstated, according to George Miller, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
“COVID-19 is still spreading rapidly throughout the United States, and antibody tests remain an underappreciated weapon in our fight to stop it,” he wrote in an op-ed article in The Washington Post on April 1.
“Armed with such tests, we can provide the public with much more specific information about their own susceptibility, possibly permit immune individuals to return to work, and help people make more informed decisions about when and whether to loosen restrictions on their social activities.”
Morgan McFall-Johnsen and Holly Secon contributed reporting.