Antibody testing could reveal if symptoms were COVID-19


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Tests that can help determine the scope of COVID-19 are just starting to become available in the U.S., and people like Shelley Stahl and Amy Mathis are anxious to get them.

The women, both from the Grand Rapids area, believe they may have had the disease earlier this year but never got tested. They’re hoping the presence of antibodies in their bloodstream will provide answers.

For Stahl, the symptoms started before Christmas and continued into February.

“It was just this cough and fever and my lungs hurt really bad,” she explained.

A flu test came back negative, so she moved forward with plans to travel to Florida after the holidays. In the first weekend in February, her symptoms became so unbearable that she went back to urgent care.

“They finally did an X-ray and there was a huge mass in my left lobe, I think they call it, and they (said), ‘OK, you definitely have pneumonia,'” Stahl recalled.

Mathis’s problems started when she was on vacation in Las Vegas with family. She described spending nearly her whole trip stuck in her hotel room.

“I started feeling really sick. I went to urgent care the next day because I had a horrible headache, had been having trouble breathing and my temperature was 103. They did a test for the flu and it came back negative,” she said.

New tests could show if the women previously had COVID-19, even though they are now symptom-free. Serology tests measure antibodies, in this case for the novel coronavirus, which would prove that a person was exposed to the virus and their immune system fought it off.

A doctor in Singapore created the first such test, but the testing has been slow to spread to the U.S. due to the difficulty in getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has given the OK to only two companies: the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Cellex in North Carolina.

Another company, Scanwell Health of California, has produced an at-home test kit that could be available for sale in the coming weeks. Doctors with the company submitted a clinical trial protocol to the FDA to get an Emergency Use Authorization, which would allow them to sell the kits to consumers.

In mid-March, the FDA relaxed certain restrictions in the process, allowing private practices and certain companies to move forward with using the test as long as it has been validated and the company has notified the FDA. Those companies and practices must also provide warning statements that the FDA hasn’t reviewed the test and the results should not be the only basis to diagnose whether a person has had the disease.

There is already a practice in West Michigan offering the test under those relaxed rules. When Stahl discovered Dr. Laurie Birkholz is offering it in the Saugatuck area, she contacted her immediately to set up an appointment. She expects to go for the test early next week and should get the results the same day.

She and Mathis are both curious how many other people they know may have had COVID-19. Mathis’s husband Ron recalled the people in their circle of family and friends who had similar symptoms.

“Our brother-in-law was sick, then our sister-in-law. When they got back, she went to urgent care, too,” he said.

If Mathis were to test positive for antibodies of this virus, it may prompt those family members to go for a test.

It’s not a diagnostic test, meaning it can’t determine if a patient currently has COVID-19. Someone should only take the test more than 10 days after symptoms abate, which is when the antibodies would be present.

Doctors say serology tests could be useful in a number of ways, beyond satisfying curiosity.

“It’s better to understand the impact of the virus on our population,” Dr. Brian Hartl, an epidemiologist with the Kent County Health Department, explained.

He also said that it could provide benefits for treatment opportunities and research. An East Grand Rapids woman who recovered from COVID-19 donated plasma Thursday to use in treatments for people currently fighting the illness. Antibody tests could identify other potential donors, even if they weren’t able to be tested for the disease itself.

Antibodies for this strain of the virus will always be present in a person’s blood if their bodies had an immune response, so the testing can be done months or years after the exposure. However, the presence of antibodies doesn’t mean that someone is fully immune. Doctors say more research is needed, but that it’s possible people who do have antibodies could end up helping the quarantined, serve on the front lines of the fight against the virus, go back to school and return to work.

This article relied on information from Dr. Jack Jeng, the chief medical officer at Scanwell Health and an associate physician at UCSF Medical Center, posted on the company’s website and Twitter pages.


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