If you’ve had COVID-like symptoms in the past -- cough, fever -- but never felt sick enough to get a COVID-19 test, you might be wondering how you can get an antibody test to find out if you previously had COVID or not.
Before we go into how to get an antibody test, let’s do a quick review of what it can (perhaps) tell you. (Like almost everything else about this virus, the “answers” you get from antibody tests are not always straightforward.)
A COVID-19 antibody test looks for signs of a previous infection. When you get sick with COVID, your body produces antibodies: immune system cells that fight off the infection. An antibody test detects the presence of these cells. Antibodies develop within days or weeks of your illness and linger in your system for a few months (we don’t know exactly how long yet) afterward.
If your blood contains COVID-19 antibodies, then you were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2. If your blood does not contain these antibodies, then either you were not infected or your body did not make any antibodies (which happens sometimes) or you were infected so long ago that the antibodies have faded from your system.
The easiest way to get a COVID-19 antibody test also is the most noble: donate blood. Many blood banks -- including the Red Cross and Vitalant -- are performing free antibody tests on every successful blood donation. You’ll be able to get your results within a couple of weeks after you donate.
If your donated blood does contain SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, you will get a special opportunity to donate your plasma for medical research. Doctors currently are studying whether or not giving “convalescent plasma” (plasma containing antibodies) to seriously ill COVID-19 patients helps them recover faster.
If you’re unable to donate blood, it can be challenging to figure out if you qualify for an antibody test (mere curiosity may not cut it) and how to get it. Talk to your doctor to find out if you qualify for the test -- and consult your health insurance company to see if it will cover the cost of it. If you’re not insured, you might want to speak to the laboratory performing the testing to find out how the cost will be taken care of.