Experts worry about false COVID-19 antibody test results

Grant Boone
May 30, 2020

As opposed to a nasal/throat swab test, which tells you if you have a current infection, an antibody test tells you if you had a previous infection.

As stay-at-home orders lift around the country and public life begins to return, health experts continue to emphasize the importance of testing for COVID-19 to prevent a second-and potentially worse-wave of infections. The CDC guidance states that "additional data are needed before modifying public health recommendations based on [antibody] test results, including decisions on discontinuing physical distancing and using personal protective equipment". The CDC says the tests, used to determine if people have been infected in the past, could be wrong up to half the time.

The antibody testing report released Friday differs from the daily reports the health department produces showing results of molecular tests, which can identify an active COVID-19 infection. "Since it's all run in house, generally it's a same day result back to the physician office", Spillers said. The antibody test (blood draw) can determine whether someone has been exposed to or been sickened from the virus in the past.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned that many antibody tests are not accurate and have not been approved by the FDA.

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False positive results from COVID-19 antibody testing are cause for concern, researchers argue. The test becomes more accurate as more days pass with a positive coronavirus case. The hospital is seeing a high demand for the test. "Until we had a test that was reliable, and until we had a methodology where there was a process to get the test and a discussion with a physician, we weren't going to make it available".

Right now it is unknown how long antibodies last after an infection. Spillers also says if you have the antibodies, you could still be at risk. The Administration recently announced [] that 29 antibody tests would be removed from its notification list and should not be distributed.

"Even still", Gronvall said, "there are some sad indicators of racial disparities in these results, and I hope that more will be that they can learn who is disproportionately affected by COVID, and what interventions can be taken to diminish spread".

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