Northwell Health Labs Discusses Importance Of COVID-19 Antibody Tests

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Dr. Dwayne Breining is Northwell Health Lab’s executive director.
(Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

As New York continues to ease stay-at-home orders and phases of reopening are well underway, the importance of being tested for COVID-19 antibodies cannot be stressed enough.
Antibodies do not necessarily mean you are immune to the virus. A person can still contract the virus, but not get sick even with antibodies. However, they can possibly still contaminate others. The complicated virus’ antibodies can stay in your system for about one year, Dr. Dwayne Breining, executive director of Northwell Health Labs, explained.
Breining, who is pathologist, is one of the nation’s leaders in researching, studying, diagnosing and treating diseases. He stops by to explain the importance of testing for coronavirus antibodies, what it means, as well as blood plasma donations.

Q: How important is it for people to get tested for antibodies?

A: We’re in an interesting point right now and it’s important for epidemiological studies. It tells us how much the COVID virus has already spread in various communities, and that’s called zero prevalence studies. It tells us not only who has the infection, but who had it in the past and recovered from it. We couldn’t do nearly enough diagnostic testing in the height of the severity. Antibody testing gives the medical and public health community a necessary window into how the virus spread to various communities. All of the indications are that if you have antibodies or definitively had COVID and recovered from it, you are in all likelihood resistant to getting that infection for the next year or so.

Q: So how long do antibodies remain in your system?

A: The antibodies actually stay in your body forever. The reason they aren’t effective is because the virus mutates and changes over the course of a couple of years. It’ll have a different color code from the virus that you might have had. That’s why you need a vaccine every year for the flu. Judging from all of the other coronavirus’ that we’ve had experience with—10 percent of our seasonal illnesses are caused by types of coronavirus’ and they’re fairly similar to COVID, but there’s less mortality—the antibodies usually give you immunity for a year to three years. It’s what we call seasonal immunity.

Q: What is a plasma donation and how important is it?

A: We’re still waiting on a couple of studies, but there’s a large national study to determine the effectiveness of convalescent donation in the COVID-19 disease. The preliminary data looks very encouraging. It’s a technique that’s been used for various infectious diseases that’s been used for more than 100 years. Blood transfusion is a relatively safe technique. We do a good job at screening the blood donation supply, which includes red cells, plasma and platelets for infectious diseases. We learned how to do that very well during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The million dollar question is, “Does it help?” You have to do large, controlled studies. It takes a while for the data to accumulate, but it seems highly likely that convalescent plasma treatment will show a positive effect for sick patients who receive those donations.

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