Until a vaccine arrives, some turn to antibody testing

Exer nurse Jillian Lehr, right, performs a COVID-19 antibody test on Michael Tsaturyan, left, the manager at Exer's Canyon Country facility, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Bobby Block / The Signal.

Antibody tests remain far from perfect, but some are turning to them as a form of “peace of mind” while a vaccine for COVID-19 is not yet available, and medical experts encourage those with immune system issues to consider taking the test. 

Among those who took an antibody test is Bridgeport resident and yoga instructor Erin Kirk Evans, who said she started feeling ill in late January. 

“I remember thinking, ‘This is not a regular feeling.’ It felt like an elephant was sitting on my lungs. It was hard to catch my breath. I was negative for flu, and doctors thought it was maybe bronchitis. It lingered for two weeks,” she said. After consuming several herbs, vitamin C and elderberry, Evans and her family eventually recovered and moved on, she said. 

But in early March, upon hearing about the growing developments with COVID-19, Evans began to question what the family experienced months prior. 

“I made the connection when things started to shut down. All the moms at school had been saying, ‘This is the worst flu (season) and half the kids were out of school.’ So, as soon as antibody testing became available I wanted to be certain because I also wanted to be a plasma donor,” said Evans. 

On April 29, she took the test through Unruh Spine Center and received her results five days later, revealing what she had suspected: positive with COVID-19. 

“I was in my kitchen when I got the news, and I was happy. It felt good to dismantle a lot of the fear,” she said. “I think if more people get out there and get tested, it can offer some peace of mind, even though the tests aren’t yet perfect.” 

Many antibody exams have yet to receive government approval, and many have questioned their accuracy, but what is available now has received what Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Dr. Bud Lawrence called a “preliminary” stamp of approval from the FDA. 

“The FDA looks at these tests and issues a EUA (emergency use authorization), which is one step below an FDA approval. It’s the FDA saying, ‘Hey, listen, we’re not issuing an FDA approval, but there’s enough information that we feel this test is likely accurate, relatable and something that we can put our stamp on in a preliminary type of way,” he said. 

There are a couple of ways to take an antibody test: One is through a capillary blood sample, where patients can get tested and receive results as soon as within an hour. Another method is through the drawing of blood and that sample is sent to a lab. Results can take several days. 

Lawrence recommends the latter, citing that accuracy is higher when samples are sent to major lab companies such as LabCorp or UCLA. 

While a vaccine is being created, Lawrence believes certain populations can benefit from taking an antibody test. 

“If you’re someone who’s around elderly people or you’re a health care provider or you’re somebody who has immune system issues, these are all reasons to potentially look into getting an antibody test so that you can have a better understanding of your personal safety,” he said. 

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