Why Antibody Tests Are a Key Tool to Get Us Back to Daily Living
While there have been several pandemics over the last one hundred years, none have been as widespread and had as dramatic economic impact on daily living as the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it is a novel virus and researchers, epidemiologist, and virologists are still studying it, we do already know that it spreads easily and is fatal. That – and the fact that there is currently no cure or an effective preventative treatment – resulted in many countries implementing lockdowns of varying severity in March of this year.
The aim of these lockdowns or restrictions has not been to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but to rather slow the rate of infection down, and to avoid overwhelming the health systems in each country where they have been implemented. As the rate of infection drops along with hospital admissions, so too can restrictions be eased, with an emphasis on ongoing social distancing. And as soon as hospital admissions for COVID-19 infections pick up, stricter restrictions or lockdowns may come into effect again, supposedly repeating until there is a vaccine or more effective preventative treatment available.
But these lockdowns all have an impact on the daily lives of citizens and the economies of the countries enacting them, with even the most lax still resulting in non-essential businesses such as restaurants, bars, hair salons, and gyms being closed. And many experts talk about a vaccine not being ready for at least 12 to 18 months, making lockdowns an unsuitable long-term response.
Why Immunity and Antibody Testing?
We are now moving into stage 2 of the disease. We want to get back to normal daily life. The current testing today is primarily to identify people with COVID-19. It is critical this testing continues. However concurrently we need to identity who has had or been exposed to COVID-19. This is where the antibody test become important. This is what is known as the “10-minute blood prick test”.
The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was the deadliest pandemic in recent history, and it occurred at a time when medical research and response wasn’t as advanced as it now is. No cure was ever developed, but the pandemic died out a little more than a year later, possibly as a result of most of the world’s population having developed immunity against that particular strain of influenza1, supported by past exposure to other strains of influenza.
The below diagram, references when antibodies appear on current knowledge in your body in the event you are exposed to COVID-19. So, you can see if you have recently contracted COVID-19 a serology or blood prick test would unlikely reveal any results.
However, after 7 – 14 days of being exposed to COVID-19 your body has likely developed antibodies and the blood prick test will likely identify this within 10 minutes.
The research confirms the presence of high levels of antibodies in recently recovered COVID-19 patients. This is an indication of protection against immediate reinfection, but with the newness of COVID-19 making it impossible to predict the longevity of immunity.
However, the protein and genetic makeup of SARS-CoV-2 suggests that antibody immunity could last for similar durations as that displayed with other coronaviruses, such as SARS 1 and MERS2. This would mean that the large-scale deployment of antibody tests could be the most effective long-term response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you are immune and have anti bodies, you are in all likelihood safe and go back to normal daily life.
It doesn’t replace the need for strong data collection and contact tracing capabilities – along with stricter restrictions still applying to high-risk individuals – but when all of these are in place it would allow for the lives of most people to return to something somewhat close to what it was in the past.
We re-iterate antibody testing would not eliminate the need for testing for COVID-19 but should instead supplement it: when you are tested for COVID-19 you are also immediately tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Any person testing positive for the presence of antibodies would have fewer limits on what they can and cannot do – and on their movements – than someone testing negative for the virus and antibodies. Some say this is the “Immunity passport”.
Naturally, until we know exactly how long immunity persists, antibody tests would need to be repeated periodically, and some non-medical interventions such as social distancing, regular sanitizing of hands, and possibly the use of face masks would need to still be followed. And it would not completely eliminate the need for more severe restrictions at times to more effectively contain local outbreaks, though these would still be less economically debilitating than a national lockdown.
Finally, getting back to daily living is not about a return to past normality; it would not see all activities and behaviors returning. But it would allow more predictability of what to expect tomorrow, the day after that, and even next week. Which is all we can hope for until a cure or effective long-term treatment is developed.