Researchers in a lab looking through a microscope

Researchers in a lab looking through a microscopeWhile we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for most of this year, there are still a lot of questions when it comes to COVID-19 antibody testing. If you were recently ill but didn’t get tested for COVID-19, you may be wondering if you actually had the virus or not. Others who didn’t get sick or have symptoms but were exposed to the virus are also left not knowing if they were infected. Many are looking to antibody testing for answers.

Antibodies are proteins the body makes to attack a virus. If you have a certain antibody it could mean that you were infected or exposed to a virus in the past, or you’ve been vaccinated against it. Antibody testing simply detects the presence of these proteins in a patient who had a virus. Unfortunately, too little is known about COVID-19 to rely on the results of antibody testing.

The big question is, can you become immune to COVID-19 once you’ve already had it? The short answer for now is, we don’t know. Researchers are still trying to understand the immune response to COVID-19, meaning they’re uncertain if the antibodies will provide immunity against reinfection. “We simply don’t have enough data to say that the presence of antibodies provides protection against reinfection with this year’s strain of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) or future mutations that may occur,” said Phillip Nizza, DO, infectious disease specialist at Mather Hospital.

Unfortunately, antibodies do not automatically equal immunity. We know that in most cases, you get sick, recover and you develop antibodies to fight off potential reinfection with same virus. Antibodies in these cases usually provide immunity. When it comes to COVID-19 though, we don’t know how much of these antibodies are needed to be protective or how long that protection may last. In other cases, for example, patients with HIV often have high levels of antibodies however they are still infected with that virus. Not all viruses act the same, therefore more research is needed to determine if COVID-19 antibodies offer protection from reinfection.

Another factor to consider is the amount of antibodies produced by mild COVID cases. Some patients with mild or asymptomatic cases show lower antibody levels and sometimes don’t even generate antibodies.  There is also the possibility of getting a false negative result on an antibody test if you’ve been infected, but antibodies haven’t formed yet.

Since there are so many caveats to these tests, you don’t want to feel a false sense of security believing that because you tested positive for antibodies, you are therefore immune to COVID-19. The World Health Organization continues to caution that the level of immunity and how long immunity lasts are not yet known.

You may be wondering then, why bother getting an antibody test if it won’t provide you with the answers you’re looking for? Information gathered from antibody testing is key in helping researchers gain better estimates of how many people actually had COVID-19 and will hopefully help in determining who might have immunity. With continued research and ongoing studies, we will eventually learn more and be able to assess who else is at risk of infection and how far the disease has spread. All of this data will help improve our understanding of how this virus behaves, inform better strategies to curb the spread of this pandemic, and protect the public’s health. Only time and continued research will yield the answers we need.