Leading scientists have bad news for the White House about anti-coronavirus antibody testing

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A lot of the news was not very good.

Antibody tests check whether a person has ever been infected with Covid-19, an indication that they have had the virus and may now be immune to it.

Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus task force, described these tests as “critical”.

The test can help determine if someone is immune to the coronavirus, “and it’s going to be important when you think about getting people back to the workplace,” said task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“The antibody test indicates that you have been infected and if you feel good, you have most likely recovered,” said Fauci. “As we look to the future, when it comes to at least considering opening up the country so to speak, it is very important to appreciate and understand how deeply this virus has entered society. “

Trump administration officials have promised that antibody testing is underway.

“We have made great strides with antibody testing, fantastic progress,” Trump said at a press conference on April 5.

Five days later, Vice President Mike Pence said at a press conference that “very soon we will have an antibody test that the Americans can do to determine if they have ever had the coronavirus.”

But during the April 6 phone call, members of the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats of the National Academy of Sciences told members of the Bureau of Science and Technology Policy White House that there were problems with the availability and reliability of the antibody. testing in the United States right now.

“In three words: work in progress,” said Dr. David Relman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee who was on call.

There are several levels of problems with antibody testing.

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First, the US Food and Drug Administration has relaxed its rules, and now companies can sell antibody tests without submitting validation data that shows they actually work.

The American Public Health Lab Association says this has resulted in “crappy” tests flooding the market.

“It’s like the wild and wild West – or the wild East,” said association CEO Scott Becker, a reference to the fact that at least half of the companies doing these tests are in China.

Becker said in a conference call Tuesday that the FDA’s commissioner, Dr. Stephen Hahn, said the antibody tests would be subject to scientific review by the National Cancer Institute.

Some feared that some tests would confuse the coronavirus that caused the current pandemic with one of the coronaviruses that caused the common cold.

“Many tests confuse the two,” said Relman.

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The tests would end up telling people that they had antibodies to pandemic coronavirus when they didn’t have it, and people might think they were immune when they were not.

A few days after the phone call, NAS scientists wrote a letter to the White House frankly informing them of the quality of the antibody tests.

Antibody test results “should be considered suspicious until rigorous checks are carried out and performance characteristics described, as the methods for detecting antibodies can vary widely, and most have only present not described well standardized controls ”, according to the letter.

Second, there are good tests in the midst of bad ones, but they are not yet widely and readily available nationwide.

Third, it is not entirely clear that having anti-Covid-19 antibodies means that you do have immunity and that you will no longer get the disease.

“That’s the $ 64 question,” said Dr. Harvey Fineberg, chairman of the NAS committee, who was also on the phone with the White House. “Does the level of antibody equate to resistance to a new disease? “

The White House Science and Technology Policy Office did not respond to requests from CNN to describe what it learned during the April 6 call or how officials plan to use the information that scientists provided them.

Fineberg said he believed White House officials had paid close attention to the appeal.

“It is Kelvin Droegemeier’s brilliance, to spark this kind of contribution and turn to academics in the first place,” said Fineberg, referring to the director of the White House political bureau. “They’re really trying to widen their openness for advice, and I think so far it has worked. “

“Seeing this kind of engagement is very encouraging,” said Relman. “Does this lead to useful consequences? Does it have an impact? Does scientific engagement ultimately inform policy? For that, I think we have to hope and wait and see. “

Fineberg added that antibody tests are important nationally, to assess what proportion of the population could be immunized, but also on a personal level.

“Everyone wants to know – am I immune?” Can I now visit grandmother so that I am not a threat to her and that she is not a threat to me? ” he said. “How do we discern the people who can now go out safely? This is an important personal and social issue. “

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