That won’t happen, he says, until enough people who test positive for antibodies return to the workforce — and then either get reinfected or don’t. It’s a waiting game.
“If the governor of a state says, ‘We have an antibody test, I can release people back to work,’ the data don’t really support that at this point,” Vinetz says. “We’ll find out what happens when policy gets balanced against science.”
Then there’s the magnitude of the challenge of testing everybody. With more than 300 million people in the U.S., the 3 million diagnostic tests performed to date represent barely 1% percent of the population. On Saturday, Admiral Brett Giroir, the testing “czar” on Trump’s coronavirus task force, told Bloomberg News that by May the country should be “in the ballpark” of capacity for widespread diagnostic and antibody testing.
Unreliable tests may pose another problem. In the U.K., Spain, and elsewhere, false test results have dashed hopes for a quick, accurate test. And in the U.S., the FDA’s decision to relax oversight for antibody tests may backfire.
“It really has created a mess that’s going to take a while to clean up,” Eric Blank, DrPH, senior director at the Association for Public Health Laboratories, told ABC News. “In the meantime, you’ve got a lot of companies marketing a lot of stuff and nobody has any idea of how good it is.”
For now, at least, no test can tell you if you’re safe to go back to your regular daily life. No testing company has made enough tests to garner large-scale results. And though you may see tests claiming otherwise, none has been specifically approved by the FDA.
“If you see [tests] on the internet, do not buy them until we can give you a test that’s reliable for all Americans,” Deborah Birx, MD, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, said at a recent briefing.
Given all the uncertainty surrounding antibody tests, “what we really need is a pill that reduces the amount of time that somebody is ill or infectious for other people, or that might prevent people from getting infected to begin with,” Vinetz says. The Yale School of Medicine, where he works, and Yale New Haven Health System are working on that. They’re establishing a drive-through COVID-19 clinical research platform for patients with mild or asymptomatic cases, which Vinetz hopes will open in the next few weeks. Those who test positive will be given either an experimental antiviral drug or a placebo, then asked to return for daily swabs for 1 week to check the amount of the virus in their throats, with weekly monitoring after that.