Antibody testing: How lessons learned in Chelsea hotspot are shaping testing in Massachusetts

CHELSEA, Mass. — Researchers were shocked at how many people tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies in Chelsea in the weeks after the Coronavirus outbreak began. Now, they’re using that information to create the next generation of antibody tests for the city of Boston and beyond.

“Of the asymptomatic people walking down the street, 30% of them had been exposed,” MGH pathology professor Dr. John Iafrate said.

Iafrate is now conducting a larger scale study throughout every major neighborhood in Boston. The first results from that survey are due out in the next week or two.

He says the outbreak is different from neighborhood to neighborhood, and town to town, so antibody testing will give valuable information as the state looks to re-open.

“A lot of people like to say, ‘You can get an immune ticket right? If you’re antibody positive you should safely be able to return to work.’ Well, the number of people with tickets is going to be different in different towns,” Iafrate said. He believes that, in areas where social distancing has been easier the last few weeks, it’s likely there won’t be a high percentage of positive antibody tests. That reduces the chances of so-called “herd immunity”, when the virus can no longer get passed around because so many people have antibodies in those areas.

“The herd immunity that I think we might see in communities like some in New York and maybe Chelsea is probably not going to be true for most of the communities that have a lower prevalence rate,” Iafrate said. He also cautioned that there is no definitive proof that a positive antibody test is a guarantee that you can’t get COVID-19 again. Researchers believe that might be true, but there’s not enough information yet, because the virus is so new.

So why are scientists so excited about antibody testing?

“It will be absolutely vital in our ability to understand what the prevalence of a disease is in a community and to be able to predict or see if there are hotspots developing and prevent recurrence of this infection,” said Newton-Wellesley Hospital pathologist Dr. Michael Misialek. He’s says as that information comes in, they’ll be able to make better decisions to protect public health until a vaccine is developed.

He cautions patients to check with their doctors to make sure any test they take is safe and the lab doing the testing is validated.

Misialek has a lot of confidence in the rapid test being used in the Chelsea and Boston studies.

“I like this particular finger stick test because it’s quick," said Misialek. “It’s cheap, it’s disposable and it can be used in a number of different clinical situations.”

He even agreed to test himself on camera for Boston 25 News. He showed us as the results came back ‘negative’ in just 10 minutes.

“I was a little bit worried beforehand, I didn’t know my status,” said Misialek. “It gives me some peace of mind that haven’t been exposed at this point and that’s important information to know.”

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