Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Covid-19 antibody test in UAE: should you get it?

A new government-approved version was released this month and the first few hospitals are now offering it

A newly available test approved by the UAE government can determine if you have any immunity to the coronavirus.

A simple blood sample, called a serology test, shows whether you have antibodies that could fight off Covid-19.

It is seen as potentially useful for people travelling abroad or those working in front line roles.

The National sent reporter Sarwat Nasir to King's College Hospital in Dubai Hills to get tested. The cost is Dh565, which includes a consultation with a doctor and the test and results.

Here's what we found:

What is a serology antibody test?

The test allows doctors to determine if you have been exposed to Covid-19 in the recent past.

It either involves taking a drop of blood with a prick of the finger, or a small blood sample from a vein.

It is not used to establish whether you have the virus - that's an entirely separate procedure called the PCR test, which uses the now widely recognised nasal swab.

Instead, the antibody gives you an idea of whether your body could fight off the coronavirus, or if you're immune altogether.

A study this month by Scripps Research, the world-renowned San Diego medical group, suggested that 45 per cent of patients were entirely asymptomatic, and recovered without ever knowing they had the virus.

What does it involve?

As I arrive at King's College Hospital, a nurse measures my blood pressure and weight and I'm taken to a doctor for consultation.

Family medicine specialist Dr Eleanor McCarthy asks me about my line of work, if I've ever had the virus or been around people who have, and a range of other questions.

The National reporter Sarwat Nasir receives the Covid-19 antibody test at King's College Hospital. Reem Mohammed / The National 
The test is a simple blood test and results take 48 hours. Reem Mohammed / The National

Dr McCarthy says if I had had virus my body would have produced antibodies against it.

This would be useful to know if I was travelling to a country with a significant outbreak or in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.

She made it clear that the results could show false positive or negative results, as the antibodies do not form until the sixth or seventh day of infection.

Why get tested?

Dr McCarthy said it gives people “a peace of mind” to know if their bodies have generated an immune response to the virus.

But scientists do not yet know whether former patients are 100 per cent immune, and how long the antibodies may last.

Just think, catching seasonal flu may mean you do not catch the same strain again that winter, but it may not protect you the following year.

During the height of the outbreak, when the government ordered residents to stay at home, I was out on various field assignments and wondered if I was ever exposed to the virus - even though I had no symptoms.

Dr Eleanor McCarthy, consultant family medicine at King's College Hospital. Reem Mohammed / The National 
Dr Eleanor McCarthy at King's College Hospital. Reem Mohammed / The National

“We are seeing a lot of patients who want peace of mind as they are perhaps planning to see family that are high risk,” said Dr McCarthy.

“If you test positive, it means you may have had exposure to Covid-19 in the past and people feel a little reassured they are slightly lower risk at transmitting it and catching it."

The National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority (Ncema) has said the test cannot be used to determine whether someone has the virus, or should return to work, for example. The PCR test remains the ‘gold standard’ to determine whether someone is Covid-19 positive or negative.

Dr McCarthy agrees that evidence or antibodies should not lead a person to be careless.

"We may get false positive or negatives and we are very much enforcing masks, hand hygiene and social distancing," she said.

How it works

A nurse takes a simple blood sample from my arm, which is then sent to a special lab.

Hospitals require a dedicated lab for the Covid-19 antibody test. Reem Mohammed / The National 
Hospitals require a dedicated lab for the Covid-19 antibody test. Reem Mohammed / The National 

Specialists then study my blood and search for antibodies - and specifically the ‘Sars-CoV-2 IgG’ antibody.

In order for hospitals to offer the test, they would have to have a dedicated lab Covid-19, which many do not.

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Do I have any immunity?

In short, no.

I get the results after 48 hours, with a phone call from a doctor and a full report in an email.

The results are either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’.

Mine was negative, which meant I was probably never exposed to the virus before and my body does not have Covid-19 antibodies.

One part of my report adds that it is not definitive and that "serologic results should not be used as the sole basis to diagnose or exclude recent or past Sars-CoV-2 infection".

Medics do not anticipate a rush of residents looking to get tested, and the government has not encouraged or funded the testing in the way it did with mass PCR testing.

But Dr Anthony Thomas, a specialist pathologist at Prime Hospital, said antibody checks become a principal method for testing "in the future", when cases drop significantly.

It could also help experts looking back on the pandemic to measure how many had it and were asymptomatic.

“It can also help to see if a patient is immunosuppressant, for example if the PCR test is continuously positive but the antibody tests keep showing as negative,” he said.

Updated: June 30, 2020 05:00 PM

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