Coronavirus antibody tests check blood for proteins the body makes in response to COVID-19

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Vybe urgent care centers in Philadelphia on Friday will begin offering customers the opportunity to get tested for coronavirus antibodies. CEO Peter Hotz expects to be able to screen hundreds of people each day from eight of his regular locations.

To see if someone has been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, these tests check blood for the antibodies the body develops to fight it.

While more widely available than tests that check for the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, because there’s no shortage of the materials involved, antibody tests are viewed with skepticism by some health experts, who question their usefulness.

“Even for those tests that are reliable, we don’t yet know how to interpret the results,” said Philly Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley on Thursday, explaining that they could give people a false sense of security. “If somebody has a positive test, we cannot say with confidence that they’re immune to this.”

An antibody test is currently being deployed at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, which expects to give it to 1,000 health care workers to get an idea of how the virus has spread. A plan to implement antibody testing for some workers in Chester and Montgomery counties has been stymied by regulatory and cost issues.

Vybe appears to be the first place in Philadelphia where regular folks can ask for the test.

Distributed by LabCorp and made by Abbott Laboratories and Roche Diagnostics, according to Hotz, these tests have not received official FDA approval, but are allowed under the FDA’s emergency use authorization.

How to get an antibody test

To get a test at Vybe, you first have to schedule a virtual telemedicine appointment with a clinician.

If you’ve shown COVID-19 symptoms within the past 10 days, Vybe will instead suggest a regular swab-style coronavirus test. If you’ve been symptom-free, you’ll be allowed to schedule an antibody test. It should be fully covered by all insurance, said Hotz, the CEO.

For people who don’t have medical coverage, Vybe’s antibody test will cost $100. Results should come in from the lab within two to three days.

“The reality is so many asymptomatic people want to know if they in fact had the virus,” Hotz told Billy Penn. “We certainly could and we will test everyone — people in the same household as people who were infected, people that think they may have been exposed, employers who are asking us to do these tests.”

Vybe will run the antibody tests at their urgent care centers in these neighborhoods:

  • Bustleton
  • Port Richmond
  • Spring Garden
  • South Philly
  • University City
  • Roxborough
  • Havertown
  • Ridley

Finding out how widely the virus has spread

Across the country, researchers have begun to use antibody testing to get an idea of how widely the coronavirus has actually spread.

But results vary widely.

Depending on location, anywhere between 2% and 14% or more of the population has tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, according to a roundup published in Stat. The higher numbers came from sample surveys in New York and the Boston suburbs.

Hotz still sees the value in running the tests. It could be useful for people to know whether they have the antibodies, he said, because they could then donate blood to researchers working to develop potential coronavirus treatments.

Plus, he has a personal investment in getting the results. Hotz tested positive for the coronavirus back in March. Since then, he’s been itching to know if he infected his wife or two daughters.

“I candidly think that there’s a psychological benefit,” Hotz said. “People are so nervous about this. I think that for me personally, if I didn’t know I had it, the fact that I could know that I had it, I would have a little piece of mind, even though immunity is not guaranteed.”

Hotz insisted his urgent care staff will tell patients who test positive for antibodies that they still have to stay inside, since there’s not yet conclusive data on immunity. And if Philly’s public health officials come around to antibody testing, Hotz said he’ll share the data collected at his urgent care center.

Although Commissioner Farley isn’t recommending the tests now, the city may eventually want that information.

“I think antibody tests will over time have a role with this,” Farley said, “but we need to understand how to interpret a positive test first.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...