NYT: Coronavirus Antibody Tests: Can You Trust the Results?

Current Affairs / Science

Before we can re-open things and start the recovery phase of this pandemic, we need to know if people have had COVID-19 and recovered, or if they are still susceptible. I’ve seen speculation about issuing people who’ve recovered some sort of digital certificate of immunity. Possessing the certificate would allow the bearer to enter buildings, return to work, go to church, etc.

But there’s a problem. Apparently there are a number of inadequate tests being developed, particularly ones that test for a generic coronavirus (like the common cold) and signal that antibodies are present but don’t specify that the antibodies are for COVID-19.

The New York Times reports on a team of scientists that have worked to verify 14 available test kits. The results are not reassuring:

Coronavirus Antibody Tests: Can You Trust the Results? – The New York Times:

In the new research, researchers found that only one of the tests never delivered a so-called false positive — that is, it never mistakenly signaled antibodies in people who did not have them.

Two other tests did not deliver false-positive results 99 percent of the time.

But the converse was not true. Even these three tests detected antibodies in infected people only 90 percent of the time, at best.

The false-positive metric is particularly important. The result may lead people to believe themselves immune to the virus when they are not, and to put themselves in danger by abandoning social distancing and other protective measures.

One out of 14 perfect accuracy isn’t really useful – and even 3 out of fourteen isn’t really helpful given that its unclear if the accurate tests can be scaled, or if regulatory agencies will only certify some and not all of the tests.

That’s the other big issue. Once again, the hollowed out scientific resources of the United States Federal Government are failing the public health function that they were created to perform. (See Climate Change mitigation and prevention for another heartbreaking example.) Whether it’s through incompetent leadership at the upper levels, or just a longstanding campaign to deny science and fact based decision making, the end result is the same. When we need the capacity to make informed decisions, we don’t have it.

Perhaps there will be a grassroots or state-level initiative to work through the testing and certification issues. Perhaps not – and given the mendacity that has characterized our federal response to the prevention and mitigation phases so far. But until we get information that is generally recognized as truthful, attempts the reopen business, churches, or institutions are going to be partial at best.

Here’s hoping the emerging regional state coalitions will be able to lead this effort.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...