Coronavirus: Antibodies testing coming to Canada

A highly anticipated new test is coming to Canada to detect COVID-19 antibodies through blood samples. Tina Yazdani speaks with the lead doctor on the Immunity Task Force.

By Tina Yazdani

A highly anticipated new test is coming to Canada to detect COVID-19 antibodies through blood samples.

Health Canada has just approved the very first serological test to detect those antibodies – meaning testing may begin in Canada in a matter of weeks.

The goal of the test is to answer two crucial questions – if those who’ve had COVID-19 are now immune and how much of the population has unknowingly already had the disease. If you live in an area affected by COVID-19, it’s likely a question you’ve asked yourself.

“If I had a test or an antibody test to prove that I already had it, then I could go and hug my grandkids – and that would be so important to me,” said Myra Marsh, who had symptoms early on, but wasn’t able to get tested at the time. “This has been a long haul for me.”

There is uncertainty even for those who never showed symptoms. Based on daily case counts, researchers have established there is likely a significant portion of asymptomatic carriers in the population. The new test will help them get a more precise infection rate and that could be the key to moving forward.

“It’s important to do this work and make sure we do this in a thoughtful manner,” said Vivek Goel, one of the lead doctors on Canada’s newly-formed Immunity Task Force.

In the three weeks since the prime minister announced the formation of the task force, the team has been busy compiling research from across Canada and around the world, with the goal to eventually conduct one million antibody tests.

“What’s really the challenge is making sure we do those tests in a smart way,” said Goel.

Not everyone who wants a test can get a test – at least not yet. Eventually, physicians may be directed to broaden the scope.

But first, the team will identify priority populations including indigenous communities, healthcare workers, homeless populations and those living in congregate living settings.

Next, they will ensure testing will cover regions across the country, so that sampling will allow for accurate local decision making.

“To make sure whatever understanding we have of immunity applies to all Canadian populations,” said Goel.

Apart from just establishing how many people have already had it, the other critical question is whether or not those who have tested positive and recovered are now protected and for how long.

“With many infectious diseases, there is a degree of immunity after you’ve had the infectious disease, it’s not established yet for COVID-19,” said Goel. “The research from around the world right now is pretty mixed on that.”

The tests have already started in some of the hardest hit countries around the world – including Russia, Italy and the U.S.

Early data from the U.S. suggests nearly everyone who has had COVID-19 does develop antibodies to the disease.

Here in Canada, “The goal is to get going as quickly as possible,” said Goel.

The test only works a few weeks after the COVID-19 infection, so if you do get a test and you’re negative, you could still have the virus in that very moment, at an early stage.

Down the line, if the team can establish that there is immunity, then the test may have value in saying certain people have had the disease, and they’re not at risk of further disease.

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