How do COVID-19 antibody tests differ from diagnostic tests?

I've heard about new COVID-19 Antibody Test. What is antibody testing? Is it the same as testing to diagnose COVID-19?

Answer From William F. Marshall, III M.D.

With all the talk about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) testing in the news, it's not surprising that there's confusion about tests and how they differ. Antibody testing determines whether you had COVID-19 in the past and now have antibodies against the virus. A test to diagnose COVID-19 determines if you currently have the disease. Here's what you need to know about testing.

When is antibody testing done and why is it important?

Antibody testing, also known as serology testing, is done after full recovery from COVID-19. Eligibility may vary, depending on the availability of tests. A health care professional takes a blood sample, usually by a finger prick or by drawing blood from a vein in the arm. Then the sample is tested to determine whether you've developed antibodies against the virus. The immune system produces these antibodies — proteins that are critical for fighting and clearing out the virus.

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If test results show that you have antibodies, it indicates that you were likely infected with COVID-19 at some time in the past. It may also mean that you have some immunity. But the World Health Organization cautions that there's a lack of evidence on whether having antibodies means you're protected against reinfection with COVID-19. The level of immunity and how long immunity lasts are not yet known. Ongoing studies will eventually reveal more data on this.

The timing and type of antibody test affects accuracy. If you have testing too early in the course of infection, when the immune response is still building up in your body, the test may not detect antibodies, so you may have to wait several days to get tested. Also, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized and verified certain antibody tests, but many tests with questionable accuracy are now on the market.

Another benefit of accurate antibody testing is that people who've recovered from COVID-19 may be eligible to donate plasma, a part of their blood. This plasma could be used to treat others with severe disease and boost the ability to fight the virus. Doctors call this convalescent plasma. In the U.S., the COVID-19 expanded access program is recruiting participants for this promising treatment study, already used in some severe cases on an experimental basis.

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