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Coronavirus antibody testing is out there, but many questions remain

The Knox Co. Health Department says the tests are only experimental. Even if you have COVID-19 antibodies, experts are not sure if they'll protect you.

Coronavirus antibody testing is available in Tennessee, but experts with the Knox County Health Department and the University of Tennessee said research on immune cell testing leaves many questions unanswered.  

Antibody cells help fight disease and become part of the human body's immune-defense system. The idea is that once a person has fought off a virus, their body will know how to beat it again. 

"That's also how vaccines work," Kathleen Brown, the director of the University of Tennessee's masters in public health program said. "Vaccines prompt the antibody response [so] we don't have to go through the experience of being ill to develop antibodies."

While thousands in Knox County are intimately familiar with nasal swab tests administered to test for the active virus, antibody tests look for the body's defenses to the virus in a person's blood. 

But when it comes to Coronavirus antibodies, there are more questions than answers. 

"We don't know to what degree the antibodies are being produced or when in the infection or among whom," Brown said. 

She also said there is a chance the COVID-19 antibodies could wear off, meaning people may be able to get the virus again. There is also a chance people who get the virus but do not show symptoms may not be immune at all. 

"There are so many factors, it takes the research and the studies to understand that," she said.  

In the meantime, the Knox County Health Department is warning that the antibody tests available today are purely experimental. 

"It is not to be used for patient care, it is not to be used for diagnostics," Department Director Dr. Martha Buchanan said. "Those tests have not quite been validated so we don't know how much we can trust those results."

She hopes the tests will be more useful once researchers know more about COVID-19 antibodies.

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