Top Doctor: Antibody Tests Don’t Show Who Is Immune to COVID-19
Medical sector needs major technological overhaul, Dr. David B. Agus argues; WHO says hopes to learn from ‘mistakes’
As governments and private companies around the globe rush to carry out antibody tests for COVID-19, a leading doctor has warned that there is currently no way to measure how long immunity to the novel virus lasts.
Dr. David B. Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and the founder and CEO of the Ellison Institute of Transformative Medicine, told The Media Line that even if a person is found to have antibodies to the coronavirus, they could still be at risk of reinfection.
“There is no blood test for immunity,” Dr. Agus stressed. “Antibodies don’t mean you have immunity. [A test] doesn’t say if you have enough of the right number of antibodies or how long they live.
“What we know is that if you’ve had the virus, you probably have months of protection, but is that two months, six months or 12 months?” he asked. “How do we measure that? It may be different in someone who is elderly and someone who is young.”
Agus cautioned against easing social distancing restrictions based on the results of antibody tests and added that governments will need to come up with more accurate ways to gauge immunity.
One of the key questions about COVID-19 that medical researchers are currently trying to answer is how long immunity lasts. To that effect, Israel is currently carrying out wide-scale serological testing to better understand how much the coronavirus has spread in the population and in order to help authorities shape policy for a possible second wave. So far, testing conducted by a Health Ministry team on 1,700 individuals indicates that 2.5% of the country’s population – some 200,000 Israelis – has contracted the disease, which is much higher than the officially confirmed cases. The antibody tests are reported to be between 95% and 98% accurate.
Some tech startups are taking the idea of serological testing a step further and claiming that they will be able to provide “immunity passports” to those who have recovered from COVID-19. British startup Onfido recently announced that it has raised $100 million in funding to launch a digital identification platform that would verify an individual’s immunity status. So far, it has partnered with a mobile hotel-booking app named Sidehide to integrate the immunity technology onto the latter’s travel-booking platform. Facial recognition firms have also jumped on the COVID-19 trend. A California-based firm named FaceFirst has promoted the idea of creating a coronavirus database that would advertise a person’s immunity status via a smartphone app.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned against the use of immunity passports, arguing that there is presently no safeguard against reinfection and that research remains to be done.
“We’ve seen a lot of small companies issuing press releases and jumping on the COVID-19 bandwagon to help their resources to raise money and get good press for themselves, and most of them probably aren’t going to be successful or helpful,” Agus said. “We have to be better as an investment community… thinking about where the world is going, rather than where the world is.”
Most importantly, Agus highlighted, the pandemic brought to light the fact that the medical sector is in dire need of a technological overhaul.
“When I look at what happened in the United States, it took seven to eight weeks for us to develop any sort of testing program here,” he noted. “Testing here and in much of the world is falling behind because we haven’t innovated a technology to do so. Diagnostic testing has not had a lot of resources or attention placed on it.”
Accordingly, the health care sector needs to invest in new testing technologies and the ability to develop new drugs, treatments and even vaccines in a more efficient way. All the data collected in electronic records, Agus said, could also provide researchers with an invaluable repository of source material for them to study and learn from.
“We need to find better ways to do things,” he stated. “We still use the same technologies we always have: We measure your blood pressure, your pulse and your temperature. … Our way of imaging patients is still shooting x-rays through you to get a picture. We have no better way of doing that. So I think we need to take a step back and say: All these advances in other fields, how do we now apply them to medicine?”
Agus spoke to The Media Line on the backdrop of The New Tomorrow, a virtual summit that took place from May 31 to June 3, sponsored by the Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. American and Israeli industry giants from the medical sector, real estate and tech arenas took part.
Among the speakers on a panel relating to medical breakthroughs was Dr. Dorit Nitzan, the regional emergency director of the WHO’s European region.
“It’s very important for countries to have a command and control system so that there is a central authority over a country and communities that can give guidance,” Nitzan explained to The Media Line. “This outbreak is so unique because it’s a new virus and we have a lot to learn.”
Nitzan decried the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation around the virus and called for the public to trust in medical authorities and their governments.
“People don’t trust and if they don’t trust we will never be able to survive well until the vaccine is developed,” she stressed. “We have to learn to live with the virus. The chances that we will be able to eliminate it are really, really low.”
Nitzan said the goal for governments at the moment should be to isolate all new cases of the virus and those they may have come into contact with as they appear. Despite an uptick in coronavirus cases in recent days, she also believes Israel has provided the world with a positive example of how to successfully contain the virus.
“I think that Israel and our neighboring countries have been working extra hours to control the pandemic,” Nitzan, who previously worked in senior roles at the Israeli Ministry of Health, said. “We’re expecting to control it, not eliminate it.”
Regarding criticism that has been leveled against the WHO and its response to COVID-19, Nitzan stressed that the world body has undergone “deep reform” since the 2014 Ebola epidemic and that it has managed to develop new operating procedures that are much more efficient than before.
Following the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, an independent panel of experts in the prestigious Lancet medical journal concluded that the WHO should be stripped of its role in declaring diseases international emergencies. Many criticized the WHO’s handling of the epidemic, accusing it of failing to act quickly enough and even downplaying the scale of the problem. More than 11,000 people died as a result of the outbreak.
“We certainly have to learn from our mistakes but in general I think that we are doing extremely well,” Nitzan argued. “We’ve had to change some of our guiding tools because it’s a new virus and we don’t know it. Many times we say we don’t know and that’s because we really do not know.”
Others were not so conciliatory in their assessment of the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Agus believes the WHO has failed to provide the world with adequate guidelines and leadership.
“I think that we need to step up a new organization around health because it is such a critical global problem,” he said. “I still think that it’s wrong that the United States dropped out of the WHO in the middle of this global crisis. I do think either restricting the WHO or figuring out a new way to do global health policy is tremendously important.”