Chicago phlebotomist says many patients tested for COVID-19 already have antibodies

New numbers coming from a Chicago hospital have shaken up the outlook on the coronavirus pandemic gripping the nation.

Sumaya Owaynat, a phlebotomist at a Rosewood Community Hospital in Chicago, said that 30-50 percent of patients tested for COVID-19 had antibodies to the virus already. This discovery implies that infections are far more wide-spread — and milder — than previously thought. 

Monumental implications

The buzz surrounding SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing has been building for quite some time, as speculation grows that a significant portion of the population may have been infected and subsequently recovered from the virus without knowing it.

According to Owaynat, “A lot of people have high antibodies, which means they had the coronavirus but they don’t have it anymore and their bodies built the antibodies.”

Owaynat has been testing 400-600 people per day for several weeks, and she found that many more individuals that came through the line had already recovered from infections than actually had active infections.

While 30-50 percent of those she tested carried antibodies, only 10-20 percent actually could be diagnosed with active cases of COVID-19, she said.

Those who had recovered from the virus had antibodies that effectively make them immune — though it’s still under investigation how comprehensive that immunity is. It is possible coronavirus had spread all over the nation and infected thousands before any social distancing measures were taken.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh said on Friday, “It has to be the case, folks. There can be no other explanation for this. Now, it may sound like a weird story from a Chicago hospital drive-thru test. Could 30 percent of parts of the worst virus areas that are locked down in Chicago already have immunity?”

The next hurdle

New data concerning the number of individuals that carry antibodies to coronavirus has begun shedding light on how rapidly and extensively coronavirus traveled through the US without detection.

Researchers at Stanford medicine have developed a serological test that can return results in 15 minutes, and have launched a study collecting blood samples from 3,000 people to see how many carry coronavirus antibodies. The test is awaiting FDA approval and results from the test study are expected to be released in two weeks.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, expressed optimism about widespread antibody testing on Friday. Fauci said that “there are several [tests] out there — some are validated to show that they’re consistent and others are in the process of being validated. We are told by the people, the companies that make them that very soon … we’d be able to have a large number of these tests available.”

Fauci emphasized the importance of antibody testing in a CNN interview on Friday, explaining that “as we look forward, as we get to the point of at least considering opening up the country, as it were, it’s very important to appreciate and to understand how much that virus has penetrated the society.”

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