COVID-19

What is Antibody Testing?

Deborah German, MD Vice President for Health Affairs and Dean, UCF College of Medicine

Antibodies and antibody testing are in the news frequently – UCF and Adventus Labs are starting drive-through COVID-19 antibody testing on campus this week. What are antibodies, what do they do and what role do they play in diseases like the unique coronavirus causing this pandemic?

For answers, we’re turning to Dr. Jane Gibson, an expert in molecular diagnostics at the UCF College of Medicine and chair of the department of Clinical Sciences. She authors this week’s health tip:

Antibodies are proteins your immune system creates any time your body is under attack from bacteria that cause diseases like tuberculosis or a virus like COVID-19. Antibodies are what your body sends out as a first line of defense against these invaders.

A positive COVID-19 antibody test tells us you have been exposed to the virus and that your body reacted to that exposure. The challenge we face in medicine right now is that no one knows if those antibodies give you immunity from the virus – and if they do, for how long.

Dr. Jane Gibson, Chair, Clinical Sciences, Professor of Pathology

We have decades of experience with viruses like the seasonal flu. We know that if you get it, you are probably immune for about 12 to 18 months. That’s why your physician recommends you get a flu shot every year. But COVID-19 is so new and unique that we have many unanswered questions about how it impacts the body. We are working to develop accurate, more advanced tests that will tell us your level of immunity. 

But for now, currently available antibody tests only tell us that you’ve been exposed to the virus. That information is helpful because people can have the disease and not feel ill. So a positive antibody test can show if you were one of those asymptomatic carriers. We also know that COVID-19 affects people in many different ways. Some become seriously ill, requiring a formal diagnosis and treatment, perhaps hospitalization. Others have only mild symptoms they attribute to a cold or minor respiratory ailment. Many of us had respiratory infections – fever, coughing, congestion – in December and January and wonder if it was COVID-19. An antibody test can help answer those questions, and you should make the decision to be tested after discussing with your healthcare provider.

Widespread antibody testing also can help us better understand the impact of COVID-19 on our community and provide a more accurate measurement of how many actual cases we’ve had. It can help us better understand how many people were asymptomatic or had only minor symptoms. A positive test can give you information on whether you should ask about donating plasma for treatments. But a positive antibody test shouldn’t give you false confidence. It doesn’t say you can’t get COVID-19 again. It isn’t a “get out of jail free card” to stop taking safety precautions like social distancing, wearing a mask in public and frequent hand washing.

As scientists and physicians, we are working hard to better understand COVID-19. Antibody testing can help us do that. But such testing does not provide all the answers.

COVID-19 health tips are brought to you by UCF’s Academic Health Sciences Center (AHSC), which includes the Colleges of Health Professions and Sciences (CHPS), Medicine, Nursing and Student Health Services. 

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