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Could antibody testing help illuminate COVID-19 exposure?

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Posted at 11:31 PM, May 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-05 17:49:07-04

RICHMOND, Va.-- Henrico County is wrapping up its drive-through COVID-19 testing site after nearly a week and a half of offering free COVID-19 and antibody testing to first responders, medical personnel and other county employees.

The test results could help determine the number of people who may have been exposed to the COVID-19 infection and have since developed antibodies to help fight the virus

“It’s arming our decision makers with information,” Henrico Emergency Manager, Jackson Baynard said. “It paints a larger picture.”

Several other organizations, including GRTC and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, also joined forces with Henrico County to offer testing to its employees.

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While antibody tests may offer insight and some peace of mind, infectious disease experts still have concerns; antibody testing has not received FDA approval at this time.

Dr. Gonzalo Bearman, Chief of Infectious Diseases at VCU Medical Center, said that science has yet to confirm the reliability of the tests.

“Unfortunately, there’s some barriers,” Bearman says. “One- the antibody testing is in development and we don’t know the accuracy of the tests yet, and more importantly- we don’t know if someone who is antibody positive will actually be immune to the infection and for how long.”

Doctors say the antibody test isn’t checking for the virus itself, instead it looks to see whether your immune system - or you body’s defense against the illness- has responded to the infection. Through a blood test, physicians can look for two kinds of antibody; IgM antibodies, which develop early in the infection and IgG antibodies, which are more likely to show up after you’ve recovered.

Family physician, Dr. Sterling Ransone, said that patients should talk to their doctors to see if they recommend antibody testing.

Antibody testing

“If people just want to test to see if they’ve been exposed, I think it’s reasonable,” Ransone says.

Ransone says testing could offer some reassurance to those in the high risk community as social distancing guidelines are gradually lifted, and that antibody testing could also encourage plasma donation so that patients currently battling the COVID 19 virus, might benefit from antibodies in another person’s blood.

“I think the biggest reason I’d recommend doing it, is for assessment of the prevalence of the virus in the population, and that’s going to be the big thing as we try and get back to work,” Ransone says. “We need to know exactly how much of the virus is in our community so we know how safe it is to go out.”

Even if testing is questionable, Henrico officials say it will help them make better decisions moving forward as the science behind the testing continues to develop and improve.

Jackson Baynard says of the nearly 1,800 people tested in Henrico County so far, they have traced the presence of 37 positive IgM antibodies and 15 IgG antibodies.

“If we can find any way to find a little more information, a little more certainty and a little bit more factual information where we can make the decisions, the better off we’re going to be as a locality and community moving forward,” Baynard says.