Lee: Much to learn about antibody tests

Health experts still do not know if having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 can protect someone from getting infected again or how long such protection might last.

Health City Cayman Islands and Health Services Authority now offer antibody testing. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee said on Monday that health leaders still have a lot to investigate when it comes to determining the importance of antibody testing and interpreting the results the tests provide.

“It is much more of interest at the moment to see… what the prevalence of COVID has been over the last few months here in Cayman, which [this test] will probably give us some idea about,” Lee said, during a Cayman Compass live roundtable discussion on health and the coronavirus.

“However – as we’ve said again and again – although we think that having had COVID may infer some immunity, and the immunity is being demonstrated by the antibody test, we still don’t know what that immunity is; how (long) it lasts for.

“And if you’ve had COVID, and yet you have a negative antibody test – as we are getting quite a few people who have – what does that mean as well?”

Compass reporter James Whittaker recently wrote a series on the antibody testing happening at HCCI. Check out the video here:

Unlike the PCR tests that are used to determine whether a person currently has the disease, antibody testing aims to determine whether a person has had the disease in the past and now has antibodies that could help form an immunity against COVID.

Lee, at the 15 May government press conference, downplayed the latter tests’ role in suppressing COVID-19 in Cayman.

“I wouldn’t say they were critical,” he said. “I think actually the PCR testing has been the critical influence in decision-making. (The antibody testing), as I mentioned, is more of a history of whether someone has been infected, and it may well be that we see that as some sort of immunity status.”

A positive antibody test shows a person may have antibodies from an infection with the virus that causes COVID-19, or possibly a related virus from the same family of viruses, according to the US-based Mayo Clinic. That could include a virus that causes the common cold.  Health experts still do not know if having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 can protect someone from getting infected again or how long such protection might last, according to the CDC.

“We’re still learning about the science, what the antibody test means, and its implications to the clinical management of the disease,” Lee said. “We do understand much better what having a positive PCR test means; that means you have virus particles in your body. That’s quite clear. The antibody test is not as clear.

“So, although we were hoping it was going to provide some sort of a passport, it may still do so, but we need a lot more time to investigate.”

Health Services Authority and Health City Cayman Islands now offer antibody testing.

Public Health does cover the cost of the testing if it’s done through the ongoing screening programme. Otherwise, the public can contact their healthcare practitioner if they’re interesting in being tested, but they may be required to pay for it.

HSA Chief Executive Officer Lizzette Yearwood said hospital staff and frontline workers will be among the first to undergo the testing. The HSA will be reaching out to those groups to schedule tests.

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