COVID-19 Resources

Understanding What COVID-19 Antibody Tests Can’t Tell Us

Aug. 8, 2020

A UC Health Infectious Diseases physician says interpretation of COVID-19 antibody test results should be guided by medical professionals.

Scientists are still trying to understand more about COVID-19 antibodies and what they might mean for those who have them. That’s why experts say to approach antibody testing with caution.

“The presence of COVID-19 antibodies in someone’s blood indicates that the individual has been exposed to the illness — but we don’t yet know whether these antibodies provide immunity,” says Senu Apewokin, MD, UC Health Infectious Diseases physician.

In fact, it’s possible that the presence of certain antibodies can harm someone if they become sick with COVID-19, he said.

“The widespread use of COVID-19 antibody testing by consumers, without the guidance of a medical expert or medical profession, is not a good idea, in my opinion,” Dr. Apewokin said.

Antibodies that kill a virus like the coronavirus are called neutralizing antibodies. Not all antibodies are neutralizing, however.

“If someone with non-neutralizing antibodies contracts the coronavirus, the virus can combine with these antibodies, easily entering tissues and cells like a Trojan horse. This is called antibody-dependent enhancement, and it can cause a lot of harm,” Dr. Apewokin said.

We don’t yet know the percentage of people with neutralizing antibodies, he added.

“The danger is that when people get tested and they find out they have antibodies, they may think that these antibodies mean I’m immune to COVID-19 and then as a result of that information, they may be more risk-inclined,” Dr. Apewokin said.