TURNING POINT: Managing the Coronavirus: the Significance of Rapid Mass Antibody Testing

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 4 May) — Two tests are currently undertaken by health authorities in an effort to manage and control the spread of the coronavirus SARS-COV-2, the disease of which is known as COVID-19: the Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test and the Antibody test.

The RT-PCR test determines the presence of the coronavirus in a suspect even if he does not manifest the symptoms of the disease. The result of the test is crucial in deciding to isolate a suspect to contain the spread of infection and ready him for medical intervention. Knowing the result of the test takes, however, from five to seven days or more, such that at times the result of the test is only known after the patient was already cremated or buried. The test is a little expensive and the difficulty and the amount of time required to conduct it is not of much help to making policy measures.

The antibody test, on the other hand, is much cheaper and quicker to conduct, the result of which can be had while you wait. The test does not determine though whether you are positive or negative of the coronavirus. What it significantly does is to show that your immune system had had contact with the virus, that is, your body’s defense against illness has already responded to the infection. That you are still alive at this point despite having the infection is already great psychological dividend enough.

If your antibodies show contact with the virus, that means you have been positive of it earlier. It requires an RT-PCR test to determine if you are still positive at the moment. If that is not immediately possible, because priorities for the test go to those patients showing symptoms, then it may be necessary for your own benefit to isolate yourself voluntarily for 14 days to observe for symptoms of the disease to manifest. If you remain healthy and beautiful after that self-quarantine, it could mean your antibodies have defeated the virus.

Some health authorities are, however, skeptical on the durability of such immunity, as reports have surfaced that COVID-19 positive patients who recovered from the disease tested positive again after a post recovery test. So no one, accordingly, can be certain how long your antibodies can protect you from COVID-19.

On this concern, epidemiology experts in South Korea who delved deeper on the issue may now put to rest such skepticism. They declared some problem likely occurred in the findings or analysis of results. What were likely detected in the post recovery RT-PCR tests of COVID-19 positive patients were some remnants of the Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) of the disabled or “dead” virus in the recovered patients not the infectious virus itself. In short, there was no reinfection. So it’s likely that persons who survived the disease are now immune to it. Studies are done to validate this and to remove uncertainties once and for all.

In other countries these survivors are now strictly monitored to determine how the immunity of the survivors would reach the level of herd immunity while waiting for the much-awaited vaccine to surface.

Indeed, a rapid COVID-19 antibody mass testing will show how much of the population has been in contact with the virus and had withstood or developed so far immunity to the disease. It can give health officials a better idea of the spread and extent of the coronavirus infection in an area which could be helpful in developing COVID-19 policies, say, in extending or having a new lockdown.

Meanwhile, persons showing symptoms of COVID-19 need not undergo antibody test but should be referred immediately for RT-PCR test and for appropriate medical attention. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)