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Antibody Testing

Antibody Testing

I got the antibody test. Now what?

All of us want to know whether we will be immune from COVID-19 if we got sick from it and then fully recovered or got better.  With so much emphasis on antibody testing, here is the science behind the two questions I commonly get asked about regarding the corona virus antibody.

Can you trust the antibody test?

Are these tests accurate? Are there false-positive results?  A false-positive result means that a test falsely indicates you have an antibody, when in reality you don’t.

Some of the tests on the market today have false-positive rates as high as 16 percent; many of the rest hovered around 5 percent. Dr. Scott Hensley, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania told the New York Times that such high false-positive rates are “unacceptable” and make these antibody tests “useless”.

Here’s why? Suppose we test a 100 people in your neighborhood with one of these antibody tests. Based on infection rates in most suburban neighborhoods, we know that only 5 people likely have the disease. But based on false-positive results, 21 people would be told they have the coronavirus – when in fact, they do NOT.

Are these tests looking for the right antibodies?

Not all antibodies are created equal. There are “name-tag” antibodies that identify the COVID-19 virus and simply tell whether you were sick from COVID-19.  Then there are antibodies called “neutralizing antibodies” which provide immunity or protection from corona virus infections in the future. 

Available tests do not look for antibodies that provide immunity.  These tests simply look for the “name-tag” antibodies. Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., vice chancellor for translational medicine and science at Rutgers University told the Philadelphia Inquirer “The problem is, if it’s not a neutralizing antibody, it’s a dud. It’s not going to confer immunity,”

With questions about accuracy and immunity, should we trust these tests with the health and safety of our families? Please choose carefully.