With so many tests related to the coronavirus out right now, it can be super confusing to parse out the different tests, how they work, what they test for, and what that result means for you as a person trying to go about your daily life. In fact, there is a ton of misinformation and misunderstanding out there about the coronavirus (this cannot be overstated), and one of the most common misconceptions is that once you have COVID antibodies, you have the greenlight to go back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle and are basically invincible — at least, to the coronavirus.
After all, isn’t that what the COVID vaccine does? Give you COVID antibodies? I mean, yes. The COVID vaccine will stimulate your body to make antibodies in about three weeks, but even then, that doesn’t mean you can’t or won’t get the coronavirus. Just because you recovered from an infection or took an antibody test doesn’t mean you have full coverage from further infections — experts don’t even know how long natural antibody protection lasts, let alone how the protection may vary from person to person. Plus, the antibody tests are imperfect.
So if you thought having COVID antibodies gave you total protection from the coronavirus, it’s totally understandable. And wrong. Really, really wrong.
But before we get more into that, some basics.
How do antibodies work?
Antibodies are proteins produced by specialized white blood cells known as B lymphocytes (B-cells) when your body is exposed to an invader such as a pathogen or a virus. Though antibodies can take several days to develop after exposure — and in the case of COVID-19, it can be 1 to 3 weeks before antibodies develop — once you have antibodies, the next time your body encounters the same invader, your immune system will recognize and attack it.
Antibodies are disease specific and can provide immunity, which protects you from getting that same disease again. For example, measles antibodies will protect you from getting the measles, but it won’t be any use against chicken pox. (Now if only we could make antibodies to stupidity — but alas, that doesn’t seem to have been an evolutionarily advantageous process.)
What is the COVID antibody test?
The COVID antibody test determines if you had COVID-19 in the past, whereas the test to diagnose whether you have COVID-19 tells you if you currently have the disease. Generally performed after full recovery from the coronavirus, antibody testing (also known as serology testing) uses a blood sample (either from a finger prick or through drawing blood) to determine if you’ve developed antibodies to COVID-19.
Check with your local healthcare provider for COVID antibody test availability and if you should get one.
What if you test negative for COVID antibodies?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if you don’t have antibodies for COVID, it can mean one of two things.
- You may not have had COVID-19. Please consult with your doctor about your test results, your test, and what it may mean for your particular situation.
- You may have a current COVID-19 infection or were recently infected and your body has not yet had time to produce antibodies (or in some people, they never produce antibodies even after infection).
If you develop symptoms after taking the COVID antibody test, you may need to take a viral test which tests if you currently have the disease and acquires a sample from your respiratory system (sometimes from a nose swab).
What if you test positive for COVID antibodies?
So, what does it mean if you have COVID antibodies? If you have COVID antibodies, this means that at some point in your past, you were exposed to COVID-19 and as a result, your body produced antibodies to the virus. It is also possible you were exposed to a different coronavirus (yes, there is more than one kind) and not that of SARS-CoV-2 (which is the kind causing this pandemic).
It does not mean you are currently infected — or that you are not currently infected — or that you experienced symptoms of the coronavirus. (You could be asymptomatic.) It only means you were possibly infected with COVID-19 long ago enough for your body to create antibodies.
While having COVID antibodies may protect you from getting reinfected by the virus, it is unknown just how much or how long this protection will last. Plus, though rare, there have been confirmed and suspected cases of reinfection.
Why you still need to be cautious even if you have COVID antibodies
Even if you tested positive for COVID antibodies, you should still follow the CDC guidelines for COVID safety. Wear a mask, maintain six feet apart from people not in your household, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated areas, and wash your hands often. As previously mentioned, you could have had a false positive due to being exposed to a different coronavirus. Additionally, we do not know how effectively COVID antibodies confer immunity — if at all — and if they do, for what duration. Currently, the estimate is immunity for approximately 3 months, but that is not an exact science. We also do not know whether once you’ve recovered from COVID-19 if you can still be a carrier of the virus or if you can get reinfected. (The chances seem to be slim, but why would you be a dick if you didn’t have to be?)
Though it’s super frustrating for us to have so many unknowns regarding COVID-19, we have to remember that it is a novel coronavirus — in other words, it’s new. We just haven’t had enough time or studies to know more.
So until there is more definitive information, don’t be reckless with other people’s lives. Be a good person — and yes, if you knowingly go about possibly infecting other people with COVID-19, you’re firmly in the bad person category — and take steps to protect yourself and others. (And by this we mean don’t fuck up other people’s lives.)
Information about COVID-19 is rapidly changing, and Scary Mommy is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. With news being updated so frequently, some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For this reason, we are encouraging readers to use online resources from local public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization to remain as informed as possible.
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