Here's What an Antibody Test Is and Why It's Important for COVID-19

This is why the coronavirus antibody test is such an essential part in the fight against the pandemic.

Coronavirus testing is a hot topic around the world, but it turns out, it's not just finding out whether or not you're currently infected with COVID-19 that matters. Doctors and scientists now believe that antibody testing could be our best bet for lessening the severity of the pandemic and helping those afflicted recover sooner. But what exactly is an antibody test and how does it help? According to physician scientist William Li, MD, author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself, an antibody test doesn't check for the COVID-19 virus itself—it's measuring whether or not your immune system has created antibodies to fight the illness. So, it's a way to recognize those who've been exposed to the coronavirus but recovered or were asymptotic.

"Antibodies are naturally formed in the body after a virus infection, because the immune systems learns to recognize the virus," Li says. "Special immune cells called B cells begin making antibodies that can stick to and mark the virus for destruction."

Li explains that antibodies can take a few weeks to develop in someone who's been infected, meaning that antibody tests are best conducted a short period after a person has recovered or been exposed. If the person tested does show antibodies to the disease, "that's a good sign they are likely to be resistant to re-infection," says Li.

While Li says that traditional COVID-19 testing is done by taking a deep nasal swab to capture mucus, antibody testing requires drawing blood for an accurate result.

The reason why antibody testing has been making headlines these days is because it's a necessary step in ending statewide lockdowns across the country. Identifying those who have had COVID-19 and recovered or who never presented symptoms—what's called the antibody population—is key to ending stay-at-home orders. "Antibody population, people who have the illness and recovered, that's important to know and we are aggressive on antibody testing," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier this week.

Going forward, Li says that antibody tests for coronavirus will be essential to help keep people safe. "A reliable antibody test will allow doctors to identify and confirm who has been infected and recovered from COVID-19, and who are likely to resist re-infection because of the presence of antibodies," he says. Those without antibodies will be more likely to become infected and should be prioritized when it comes to the eventual availability of a coronavirus vaccine.

"Everyone should get an antibody test to know if they have been exposed, and whether they are safe," says Li.

And for more on what needs to happen for the coronavirus quarantining to end, check out 6 Things That Need to Happen Before the Lockdown Can Be Lifted.

Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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