Can you detect your immunity to COVID with an antibody test? Israeli research says yes

During the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have been hesitant to use the results of standard antibody tests to estimate levels of COVID immunity. But new research from Israel suggests that such tests may be a reliable indicator.

According to the scientists behind the study, such tests could be used as a screening tool to distribute the first batches of updated vaccines once they arrive.

Until now, the only reliable way for scientists to assess antibody-based protection against COVID was to measure blood levels of neutralizing antibodies, which have been documented to attack SARS-CoV-2. This measurement, which is difficult to perform, requires a special laboratory process that is expensive, takes several days, and is therefore not scalable for widespread use.

Common antibody tests, which laboratories can quickly run using kits that cost only a few dollars, give a picture of immunoglobulin G (IGG) antibodies in the blood. They have been used to answer yes or no questions about whether a person has been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, but they have not been widely used to determine how much protection they have. Although it is widely assumed that the tests provide some indication of the level of immunity, this has not been proven.

Now a group of Israeli immunologists, epidemiologists and other researchers say they have received this confirmation. Led by Ben Gurion University professors Tomer Hertz, Ran Taube and Lior Nesher, the study published its findings online, but they have not yet been peer-reviewed.

Hertz told The Times of Israel: “We have successfully identified antibody markers that predict the risk of infection, so we can create a system for scoring it based on antibody levels.

“Until now, we have not been sufficiently confident that the results of simple antibody tests are reliable indicators of infection risk, but the results of our study suggest that quality test kits can be trusted.”

Illustrative image: Neutralizing antibodies attack SARS-CoV-2. (iStock via Getty Images)

During the pandemic, scientists hoped that easily measured IGG levels would be an indicator of overall antibody strength against the coronavirus. However, this has been difficult to prove because it requires a population of people whose antibodies are tested and then followed for the types of infection. For the statistics to be reliable, there must be a high rate of infection.

Hertz’s team found such an opportunity in Israel’s winter coronavirus wave. It recruited a sample of 608 healthy adults, and in the first 90 days of follow-up, 239 (39%) became infected.

The team found a clear correlation between IGG levels and the level of infection and documented how the results could be better read by doctors to predict the risk of infection.

Hertz explained: “The fact that we have so many infections means that even a sample of this size can provide insight into the correlation between the antibodies shown in simple tests and the risk of infection. This may have practical applications. If we get to the point where new variants emerge and we want to use the new vaccines that are being developed and are expected to be available soon – a vaccine with additional protection from the variants – we can expect a shortage of new vaccines. Relatively simple tests can help with the distribution.

“This has not been done so far, and the correlation of antibody test results with the level of infection has not been officially proven. But now such an approach may be meaningless.”

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