COVID-19: The dangers of jumping to conclusions about antibody testing

COVID-19: The dangers of jumping to conclusions about antibody testing
Antibody test (Image: YouTube screen grab via CNN)

“Antibody Testing: Proves We’ve Been Had!” So breathlessly exclaims radio host Kevin McCullough in an article at Townhall. He goes on to assert that “nearly everything we’ve been told about models, rates of infection, deaths, and recoveries was inaccurate.”

McCullough’s sweeping generalization is based on a “stunning announcement” (his words) on Thursday by epidemiologist Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo announced that antibody testing in New York state, which only began four days previous, was already demonstrating that at minimum 13.9% of New Yorkers, had COVID-19 late stage antibodies.

A CBS News report that McCullough links to advises that this is “a preliminary antibody study,” but McCullough is ready to declare “game, set, match,” writing:

The death rate in New York State isn’t 7.4%, it is actually .75%. The recently ended influenza season numbers from the CDC indicate possibly 56,000,000 cases of flu, 740,000 hospitalizations, and 62,000 deaths. Under the current count from the Johns Hopkins Dashboard in this five month stretch CoVid19 has racked up 845,959 confirmed cases, 122,000 hospitalizations and 46,972 deaths.

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We were told that we had to upend an economy, go into solitary confinement, and divorce ourselves from normal life because this would rage beyond any previous pandemic.

So what’s wrong with McCullough’s assumptions? They fail to take into account a truckload of caveats that attend the matter of antibody testing. An article at the health and medicine website STAT pinpoints some of these.

It notes, for example, that the Food and Drug Administration has so far cleared only a few of the commercial antibody tests being offered and that even the ones currently on the market vary in accuracy:

Even the best tests will generate some false positives (identifying antibodies that don’t actually exist) and some false negatives (missing antibodies that really are there). … The fear … is that false positives could errantly lead people to think they’re protected from the virus when they have yet to have an initial infection.

One last caveat: The common cold, which virtually all of us have had, is also a coronavirus, with symptoms identical to those associated with COVID-19: fever, fatigue, dry cough, and body aches. It is entirely possible that antibodies made by the body of individuals who have had colds are being mistaken for COVID-19 antibodies. As a Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen cautions, “Before we embark on huge policy decisions, like issuing immunity certificates to get people back to work, I think it’s good that people are saying, ‘Hold up, we don’t know that much about immunity to this virus.’”

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.

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