Much of the discussion around coronavirus testing concerns the type of test that requires a long swab to go deep in your nose so you can find out, eventually, if you have the virus. These tests are helpful at diagnosing patients but less helpful at assessing the spread of the virus. For that, experts have called for antibody tests and last week, the FDA granted its first emergency authorization to one such test. What is an antibody test and why would it help? Here’s what we know:
What is an antibody test?
Antibody tests, also known as serological tests, look for antibodies in a patient’s blood. People who have gotten sick and recovered from COVID-19 have these antibodies, as do those who had the virus without ever experiencing symptoms. Some antibody tests, which require a quick finger prick, can return results in as soon as 15 minutes.
Why are antibody tests helpful?
As Dr. Anthony Fauci said on CNN Friday, these tests will help health officials better understand how many people have been infected with COVID-19.
“As we look forward, 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 said. “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 tests would reveal those with immunity to COVID-19. In theory, this would allow them to reenter the workforce without concern that they’ll get sick or infect anyone else. Results of these tests could also change, or confirm, what is known about the virus’s spread. Currently, there have been 475,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. If antibody tests reveal that, say, 4 million people have actually had the virus, it would “suggest that we are much further along the timeline of the pandemic and much closer to its conclusion.”
When will tests be available?
So far, the FDA has authorized only one test, but it’s allowing more than 70 companies to sell others tests that do the same thing as long as they abide by a handful of rules. The agency has had trouble getting all of the companies to follow its rules though. Earlier this week, the FDA said “some firms are falsely claiming that their serological tests are FDA approved or authorized, or falsely claiming that they can diagnose COVID-19.”
How can you get an antibody test?
Those seeking an antibody test without ever testing positive for COVID-19 may have to wait several weeks to get one, but people who have recovered from the virus can likely have antibody levels tested sooner.