guest column

UTHSC dean: Current COVID antibody tests aren’t always correct

By , Guest Columnist Updated: April 29, 2020 11:02 AM CT | Published: April 29, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Scott Strome
Guest Columnist

Scott Strome

Dr. Scott Strome is the Robert Kaplan Executive Dean of the College of Medicine and vice chancellor for clinical affairs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

The World Health Organization recently suggested that people who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2, the virus strain that causes COVID-19, may not be immune to secondary infection. This statement simply means that we need more data to determine if patients who have SARS-CoV-2 develop immunity.

Why question the existence of immunity to reinfection? There are several reports of individuals testing positive after recovery. However, the type of test used in this situation simply checks for the “guts” of the virus. It doesn’t tell us whether that virus is alive or dead. These individuals could simply be shedding the remnants of a dead virus long after it is infectious, or they could have active infection. The current test does not distinguish between these two possibilities.


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<strong>Dr. Scott Strome</strong>

Dr. Scott Strome

We are also likely to see a rash of “infections” in individuals with “asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2,” who have antibodies against COVID-19. Some of the current antibody tests being offered for COVID-19 are not specific for this particular virus. If you test positive using these tests, you may have had COVID-19, or you may have had another type of infection. In contrast, if you test negative, it is still possible that you had COVID-19.

If you get an antibody test, ask your doctor if the test is specific to COVID-19 and have him or her review with you the benefits and limitations of each specific test, particularly if the test is not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

If patients do not develop protective immunity to COVID-19 reinfection, the ramifications would be catastrophic. There would be no scientific basis for vaccine development. The use of convalescent plasma as a treatment strategy would have little merit.

Given such negative consequences, it is easy to over-interpret the World Health Organization’s statement and succumb to hysteria. Until we have better tests and more data, let’s not jump to hasty conclusions.

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