All over the world, millions of people utilize “Dr. Google” to check their health symptoms online every day. So it’s really no surprise that, in the middle of a pandemic, the number of searches consistent with the symptoms of COVID-19 would skyrocket. For researchers, this data has proved a beneficial tool when tracking the emerging symptoms among COVID-19 patients.
Now, thanks to the rising number of antibody tests becoming more and more available, some of the same people who once relied on Google to assess the severity of their symptoms have an opportunity to find out whether they were infected with the virus. Or more specifically, whether they may have been infected with COVID-19 a couple of months prior.
It just so happens, I was one of the people.
In late February of this year, I was the sickest I’ve ever been in my entire life. I went to bed early on a Monday night and woke up roughly five hours later with body aches, cold chills, a sore throat, a right eye that was red and swollen shut, and a cough sent straight from hell.
My husband couldn’t stay home from work the following morning, so I had to tough it out with two preschoolers and two toddlers until later that afternoon. I remember walking up the stairs to pick up my two-year-old twins after sleeping so little, and having to actually sit down for a break before I was even halfway to the second floor. By that night, my temperature was up to 104 degrees. It wasn’t smart, I know, but I must have taken at least ten baths that night with the water on its hottest setting, desperately trying to stay warm.
When I wasn’t better by the next day, I went to my local walk-in clinic and found out that my oxygen levels were in the low 90s. Despite being sweaty instead of cold like the night before, my fever was still at 102. Ultimately, I was given a breathing treatment, diagnosed with influenza b, and with four prescriptions in hand, I was sent on my way.
Even with the meds, however, I wasn’t getting better as quickly as expected. And though I told myself it probably was just a bad case of the flu and only a bad case of the flu, another part of me wondered if there was something else going on too, especially as the coronavirus cases in my state grew.
I didn’t want to be one of “those people” who insisted I needed to be tested for a deadly virus when there were no other cases in my county and I’d already tested positive for something else … especially when the number of tests available in my area were so slim. Still, I questioned whether I was one of the countless undocumented COVID-19 cases in America.
Then a few weeks ago, a friend shared that the physician’s office she works for was performing COVID-19 antibody tests nearby which could measure the presence of specific proteins (antibodies) found in the blood in response to a past coronavirus infection.
At first, I was skeptical. Even though antibody tests can be especially useful for measuring the growth and immunity of viruses amongst populations, I knew that these specific antibody tests for COVID-19 were still under speculation due to several uncertainties.
For one, there are multiple versions of the laboratory tests, all of them varying in terms of accuracy. Because the novel (meaning new) coronavirus is a strain of the six other coronaviruses already discovered, with four of these viruses causing the widely-known common cold, some of these antibody tests could pick up on coronavirus antibodies that differ from the COVID-19 infection.
Given the timeline of when I was sick, I figured the chances were unlikely that I would test positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Still, I was curious enough to do my research on the specific test this doctors office was offering, and ultimately, made the appointment.
When I arrived at the office (with a mask on, of course), I was instructed to go to the back entrance where I would be let into a small, enclosed room upon ringing the bell. To my relief, there weren’t any other patients in the area where I was to be seen. I sat in an exam chair that was freshly cleaned, and rolled up my sleeve for what I thought would be a blood draw, only to be told that it was merely a finger-prick type of ordeal instead (score!).
The antibody test was pink and looked exactly like that of a dollar store pregnancy test. I wasn’t expecting my results that day, but to my surprise, the nurse said that I would have them within ten minutes anyway.
As instructed, I waited in my vehicle for a nurse to tell me the news: my COVID-19 antibody test was negative. Out of habit, I suppose, my reply was, “Oh, good!” to which she responded, “Or bad, depending on how you look at it.”
Her humor was a bit dark, but she was absolutely right. We don’t know enough about COVID-19 or its antibodies to react the “right” way to either a negative or positive antibody test. Because in all reality, we don’t know what these results in either form mean for us just yet.
“People who have recovered from infection have antibodies to the virus. However, some of these people have very low levels of neutralizing antibodies in their blood, suggesting that cellular immunity may also be critical for recovery,” the World Health Organization (WHO) says in a release.
Both false negative and false positive results are troubling and to be expected to a certain degree, but experts fear the false sense of security a false positive (or even an accurate positive result for that matter) could bring more than anything.
Whereas antibodies from other viruses can provide immunity, as of now, there are no studies confirming whether the presence of COVID-19 antibodies immunizes a person from further infection, and it’s unclear how long a person will have these antibodies either. For someone who tests positive for these antibodies, the fear is that they will become more lax in the preventative measures taken to slow the spread, believing they are immune. When really, research has shown that there is no evidence to support that as true.
“At this point in the pandemic, there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate,’” according to the WHO.
Despite the results of an antibody test, this is still a time to practice social distancing, wear a mask when running essential errands, and stay informed. Not just for ourselves, but for everyone else we come into contact with too.