The Problem with Relying on COVID Antibody Tests

Friday, June 5, 2020

One of the primary problems with containing the coronavirus is that many people who become infected with the disease either manifest no apparent symptoms, or only experience very mild symptoms. This is a problem because it makes determining the exact number of infected more difficult, with some asymptomatic carriers unwittingly spreading the disease. To deal with this issue, states have been stepping up testing for the coronavirus, as well as increasing COVID antibody testing. However, relying on antibody tests to determine if someone has had the coronavirus could cause more problems than they solve.

               Antibody testing refers to the use of medical tests to determine the presence of antibodies in the bloodstream. Antibodies are proteins found in the blood that are produced to fight pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or foreign substances. By testing for the presence of certain antibodies, it is possible to determine if someone has previously had a certain disease. The presence of antibodies can also potentially indicate the person will be resistant to future infection from that same disease, although this is not always the case.

               Theoretically speaking, it is thus possible to determine if someone has already had the coronavirus by testing their blood for COVID antibodies. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was slow to regulate the creation of COVID antibody tests, resulting in the market getting flooded by antibody tests of dubious quality. Alarmingly, many of these tests tend to show false positives for the presence of COVID antibodies, giving a false sense of security to people who took one of these tests.

               For this reason, businesses should not rely on antibody testing to determine if an employee has had the coronavirus. Far from confirming that the person has overcome the disease, reliance on current COVID antibody tests could lead to accidentally exposing someone to the coronavirus under the impression that they are “safe” from infection. With the coronavirus still spreading invisibly among large segments of the population, everyone should continue to maintain social distancing and wear personal protective equipment. Until antibody testing becomes more reliable, and the risk of reinfection becomes better understood, it is the only way to maintain safety for employees and customers alike.