A new, different type of coronavirus test is coming that will help significantly in the fight to quell the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors and scientists say.
The first so-called serology test, which detects antibodies to the virus rather than the virus itself, was given emergency approval Thursday by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. And several more are nearly ready, said Dr. Elizabeth McNally, director of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Center for Genetic Medicine.
“You’ll see many of these roll out in the next couple of weeks, and it’s great, and it will really help a lot,” said McNally, noting doctors and scientists will be able to use it to determine just how widespread the disease is, who can safely return to work and possibly how to develop new treatments for those who are ill.
The serology test involves taking a blood sample and determining if it contains the antibodies that fight the virus. A positive result indicates the person had the virus in the past and is currently immune.
That kind of test will be far easier to roll out and use than the complex nasal swab tests now being used to detect the active virus that causes COVID-19, she added, saying it’s possible that the antibody tests could be conducted in the confines of one’s own home, much like a pregnancy test.
“They will come in a variety of shapes and sizes,” McNally said. “The simplest would be one that you do at home, that you would poke your finger and squeeze out a little blood and put it on a little strip, and it’ll be the plus-minus whether you’ve developed antibodies or not.”
There are several benefits to having the test, including:
Determining how much of the population is infected.
“One of the questions we are going to be asking … is, ‘How widespread was this virus?’ ” McNally said. “I think we have a lot of indication that it’s much more widespread than we know, because most of the younger people who get this get it relatively mildly, recover and do OK. And we’re not tracking any of those people right now.”
Interestingly, the more people who have had it, the safer everyone is, under the concept of “herd immunity.”
“The people who are already covered can actually provide protection to the people around them, just because it’s hard for the virus to spread,” McNally said. “The virus can’t spread anymore, so people are less likely to get it.”
Figuring out who can go back to work, particularly sidelined doctors and nurses, police officers and firefighters.
If a person is positive for antibodies, which likely show up two to six weeks after infection, they’re not going to get sick or spread the virus, because their bodies are killing it off. “Once the antibodies come up in your system, that means your body fought it off, and you don’t have active virus,” McNally said.
It may also be important to test grocery store workers, McNally added, noting that buying food is one of the things that’s still forcing people out of their homes. “That’s one of the major points of contact, so where we can reduce that, especially in the next few weeks, I think that’s going to be really critical,” she said.