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Doctor explains how COVID-19 antibody tests work

Antibodies are part of your body's response to a virus. Dr. Mary Rodgers with Abbott Labs explains.

AUSTIN, Texas — As we continue living through the coronavirus pandemic, we are also trying to learn more about it.

Researchers are working on a vaccine and are testing more to get answers. And antibody testing is a big component of looking for those answers.

New research shows antibodies may not last long. By just eight weeks after recovering from COVID-19, 40% of asymptomatic people saw their antibodies drop to undetectable levels. And for 13% of people who showed symptoms of COVID-19, the antibodies in their blood dropped to undetectable levels within eight weeks as well.

Principal Scientist Dr. Mary Rodgers with Abbott Labs, which has shipped 11.8 million COVID-19 antibody tests across the country, joined us Monday morning to explain.

Question: Can you explain how antibodies work? What are they? 

Answer: So antibodies are part of your body's response to a virus. ... 

This information is also important for doctors, too, because as they manage patient care, it's important to know who's already had COVID-19, especially as we're starting to see some unexpected long-term effects that are having emergence now as we see more people farther out from their recovery. 

So some people are experiencing strokes or some lung damage that is lasting longer and is even occurring in people who did not have symptoms in the first place. 

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Question: I've read some studies that have shown that some of these antibody tests are only about 20% accurate. What do you say to that? 

Answer: It's really frustrating to see tests that are available that aren't working very well. And accuracy has always been really important to us at Abbott. We've been making tests for diagnostics for infectious diseases for over 30 years. 

And so this is something that we take very seriously. Our test is performing really well. Our tests are showing in our hands and others with thousands of samples that are specificity in the high 90s and the sensitivities in the high 90s, which means that we have a very low rate of false positives or false negatives. 

And you can be very comfortable in knowing that those test results are accurate. 

Question: As a scientist and as we continue to learn more about COVID-19 and as we reopen the economy and then close the economy back again, are we not just delaying the people that are going to be exposed to COVID-19? 

Answer: It's really frustrating for all of us. I think we all really want to go back to normal. And it's hard to predict things in the long term because it's important to keep in mind that every virus is different. And we don't really know what the agenda is going to be for this virus. What we have to do is take it one step at a time and make sure that we're following the guidelines that are put in place for each individual region to stay healthy. And so that means protecting our kids, protecting our communities, and hopefully we get closer and closer to some kind of normal again. 

Question: If I test positive for the COVID-19 antibody, does that mean I will not get COVID-19 again? 

Answer: Still not clear on whether or not there is protection, but because we have this antibody test, we can now start to monitor people and know whether or not they're going to be protected. 

And it's really important to know that as more research is done, we'll start to be able to have those definitive answers. Already we're starting to see that some people probably are prevented from getting a new infection. And so as more and more people have a larger body of evidence, then we'll feel more confident in those kinds of answers about immunity. 

A recent study published in Nature Medicine found antibodies could fade within two to three months.

If you are interested in having an antibody test, be careful: The FDA has pulled some antibody tests from the market because of accuracy concerns. And the FBI issued a warning that they have found companies selling fake tests to steal your information.

You can find more information about COVID-19 testing here. For information on the different tests and labs that are recommended, go here.

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