Public health experts call for expanded testing of COVID-19 antibody

File photo for illustrative purposes only / photo courtesy of Landseed International Hospital

TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan public health experts called Monday for expanded testing to identify people with antibodies for the COVID-19 coronavirus so that they can safely go to work where they are needed.

“These people with immunity can play an important role in protecting humanity from the virus,” Chen Hsiu-hsi (陳秀熙), vice dean of National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health, said at a weekly press conference in Taipei hosted by the college.

According to Chen, the antibodies from prior COVID-19 recovery protects them from being infected with the acute respiratory disease again.

The call comes at a time when operating hours for offices and businesses have been affected due to social distancing and healthy separation to slow the spread of the disease.

“If people knew about their immunity status, then they could go back to normal working lives, especially for the much-needed healthcare personnel,” Chen said.

In addition to people who know they were previously infected with the coronavirus, there are also many people who have never displayed symptoms and made recoveries without even knowing they were infected in the first place, Chen said.

These people can find out if they have antibodies to COVID-19 by using a rapid diagnostic test, which is done on the spot by looking for the presence of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies, he said.

IgM is known to appear first early in the infection before the antibodies turn into IgG, which can be found over a longer period of time, Chen said.

IgM is known to appear first early in the infection before the antibodies turn into IgG, which can be found after two weeks later into the infection, Chen said.

Screen shot of rapid diagnostic test / Image courtesy of National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health

Asked if it is possible for someone to have antibodies but still be infectious, Chen replied to CNA that a patient will not infect other people if he or she has already been infected for over a month.

“If we find the antibodies are IgG, and the person has been infected for over a month, then he or she is pretty safe,” he said.

“That is currently the thought in the United States and some countries in Europe,” he said, adding that if it is determined who is safe to go back to work, these people can use their immunity as protection against the pandemic.

Meanwhile, National Taiwan University Hospital Emergency Medicine physician Lee Chien-chang (李建璋) also expressed support for expanded antibody testing.

“Society might be able to allow lockdowns for a short period of time, but when one or two months drag on into something longer, the problems accumulated due to unemployment will be more detrimental than the virus,” he said.

However, Lee said Taiwan is doing a good job at curbing the virus relative to countries under the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Taiwan finds one positive infection for every 120 tests, whereas Australia and South Korea find one positive in around every 50 tests, Lee said, adding that the U.S. finds one positive for every 10 tested, including New York, where one new infection is found in every two tests.

Image shows Fifth Avenue in the borough of Manhattan in New York City

As of Monday, Taiwan had reported five new imported cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number in the country to 393 since the pandemic began in China in December, according to the Central Epidemic Command Center.