For many people in the Western world, the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly grew overnight, sickening millions and causing the once-vital United States economy to grind to an abrupt halt. As cases seemed to subside for a brief period over the summer of 2020, prompting a rash of business reopenings, the virus gave the impression that it had receded just as quietly as it had appeared. However, as the country currently rides the second wave of COVID-19 cases—in most areas, even more significant than what was experienced in March and April—it’s clear that this virus is a more formidable opponent than many assumed.
The Average COVID-19 Case
By this point in the pandemic, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture the COVID-19 patient as we know him or her—the average worker who, after experiencing incidental exposure to the virus, begins feeling a bit sick. After two to 14 days, COVID symptoms are present—perhaps including shortness of breath, fever, chills, cough, body aches, headache, sore throat, congestion, nausea, diarrhea, and a loss of taste and smell. As a result, the worker recognizes the signs and requests a COVID-19 nasal test, which turns out positive; the worker self-quarantines for up to 14 days, the employer and family perform contact tracing, and the chain of infection ends with any potential exposure in quarantine.
Unfortunately, however, this picture of the “average COVID-19 patient” isn’t all that average. Scripps Research suggests that as many as 45% of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and never experience any of the symptoms listed above. Worse, these asymptomatic, or “silent” carriers are just as capable of shedding the virus during its incubation as someone who is miserable—and since there is often no reason to suspect COVID infection, that person could easily spread the disease at work, school, or the grocery store.
So, how are businesses—particularly large corporations with hundreds or thousands of employees—supposed to go about reopening with the potential for dozens of these silent carriers in their midst? In addition, when shutting down the spread of the virus and returning to business as usual depends so heavily on contact tracing and isolating the exposed, how can we track those exposed silently? From a public health perspective, the answer to both these questions likely lies in antibody testing.
An antibody test is a serological (blood) test that detects COVID-19 antibodies in a person’s blood. Since antibodies to a particular pathogen only appear as a part of the body’s immune response to that disease, the presence of antibodies is a telltale sign that a person has contracted COVID-19 at some point in the past. The possibility of continued resistance to COVID-19 due to these antibodies can help researchers understand just how resistant the body remains to the disease over time.
The Importance of Rapid Antibody Testing
A critical point emerged with rapid antibody testing, with results available in approximately 10 minutes. By deploying rapid antibody testing to test entire groups in one fell swoop, businesses, and schools that harbor many individuals under one roof can build a much more accurate picture of exposure in a single testing day. When used in conjunction with another test, rapid antibody testing may even serve as a complementary diagnostic, identifying potential silent carriers who may have recently shed the virus to others.
Perhaps most importantly, however, the data provided by rapid antibody testing allows businesses to make more informed decisions about how to approach reopening safely. After reopening, businesses can more accurately track additional infections after they occur and employ contact tracing to prevent further spread. By the time the second wave begins to subside, the data created can inform local, state, and federal officials as well.
Armed with critical information regarding the disease’s spread and the long-term potential for immunity or resistance to COVID-19, officials can make more informed decisions for reopening once the country emerges from the darkness of this winter. Moving forward, rapid antibody testing and advanced treatments may be our best hope of returning to business as usual.