We signed up out of curiosity. Maybe, it was even out of boredom, an excuse to leave our tiny one-bedroom apartment after weeks of Zoom meetings, binging mindless television shows and making too much zucchini bread.
Late last week, my boyfriend, Michael (who asked that his last name not be used for privacy), made appointments for something called an antibody test. It’s a blood test to determine if people have been infected and recovered from COVID-19. If the test shows antibodies, it means you were exposed to the virus. Dozens of these tests have flooded the market over the past few weeks. Some government officials say they could be used to better understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities and, ultimately, help reopen society.
We had both gotten sick around early to mid-March. He got sick from a coworker just before I traveled home to New York City to visit family, a week before Chicago and the rest of the country started shutting down to stop the spread of the virus. A few days after I returned, I developed a cough, congestion and a splitting headache that lasted for a week. I never had a fever, which I rushed to tell people when I said I was sick. But I did lose my sense of smell.
A week later, we had both mostly recovered. Everything went back to normal, as much as it could during a pandemic. But as the weeks dragged on and there were more reports of people testing positive without a fever, I started to wonder: Did I have coronavirus?
While we were interested in what our tests might say, we weren’t naive. We read the news about whether the tests are reliable and the high rate of inaccurate results, which has given scientists and some government officials pause.
“I’m taking it all with a grain of salt,” Michael told me before heading to his test last Friday. “But I would just like to know.”
As he was driving home from his test, he heard Gov. JB Pritzker on the radio, raising concerns about antibody tests and saying he had no plans to scale up this testing statewide at this time.
“What I won’t do is run full speed ahead before they're proven because, among other things, we would be offering people a false sense of security,” Pritzker said.
Accuracy, reliability a question
I made my way to Innovative Express Care on Ashland and Fullerton avenues for my test on Monday. When I arrived, I was greeted by an employee covered entirely in personal protective equipment who instructed me to wait in my car before a medical assistant came over to take my vitals. Then, I could go into the clinic where I got my blood taken. It was quick and easy. I was told the test results would show up in my online portal by the end of the week.
Pritzker isn’t the only one voicing concerns with antibody tests. A group of researchers spent weeks testing 14 different antibody tests and found just three were consistently reliable. Doctors also said even if patients do have antibodies, it’s unclear how long they may remain. The World Health Organization recently said right now there’s no proof someone can’t become infected again with the coronavirus.
“Just because you do have antibodies doesn’t mean you’re free to go and do whatever you want without masks and visit people,” said Dr. Rahul Khare, who runs the Innovative Express Care clinic where we received our tests. “Because we don't exactly know what that means.”
Khare said he is aware of concerns about the accuracy of the tests, but feels confident in the test his clinic is using from Abbott Laboratories. Abbott Laboratories did not return a request for comment on the test’s reliability, but has said in public documents its test had a 99% accuracy rate. (Its test was not a part of the study mentioned above that reviewed 14 tests.) The test was also approved by the Food and Drug Administration through its emergency use authorization, though some have criticized the FDA for pushing tests through without proper scrutiny.
Khare said he thinks it’s worth offering antibody tests because gathering information now could prove useful in the future.
After all, scientists are learning about COVID-19 in real time. Successful, reliable antibody tests could eventually tell us how widespread infections are, who might be immune and who could return to work.
A few days after taking the test, we got our results. Michael got a voicemail saying he tested negative and the caller encouraged him to continue social distancing.
A few hours later, I learned I had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, and that at some point it is believed I was exposed to the virus.
Even though I knew it was possible I had the coronavirus, I was shocked. So was Michael.
“Just the idea that you could get this virus from somebody at the grocery store but not get it from living with someone who has it in 750 square feet is just so crazy to me,” he said.
Or, was it a false positive?
Dr. Elizabeth McNally at Northwestern University said it is possible I could’ve had the coronavirus and not spread it to someone I live with, though more research needs to be done.
Preliminary research out of China suggests household secondary attack rates — when other people in a household get the virus from an infected person — ranged from 10% to 15%. But McNally and other experts emphasized this data is preliminary and incomplete. It also doesn’t negate the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, experts warn.
“We really don't know the household spread rates in the U.S. yet,” said Glenn Randall, a microbiology professor at the University of Chicago.
McNally said everyone’s immune system is different, which could be a factor in the varying test results. But ultimately, antibody tests are still important to track and study.
“Right now, [testing has] been happening so quickly that I worry that we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater and suggesting all [antibody tests] are bad, when some are technically bad and a lot are giving variable results for really true actual medical reasons,” McNally said.
Michael and I may never really know what our tests results mean. McNally suggested that would require a time machine, one that would enable me to get tested when I first got sick back in March.
So, we aren’t changing anything about our day to day lives. We’re still staying inside, wearing our masks, washing out hands and hoping this is all over as quickly as it can be.