What are antibodies? Why is developing antibody testing for COVID-19 so complicated?

Claymation video helps explain

There has been an emphasis put on developing widespread coronavirus (COVID-19) antibody testing as we move forward through the pandemic.

Developing such testing has proved to be very challenging. Our Dr. Frank McGeorge explains exactly what antibodies are and why developing a test for them is so complicated.

All viruses are covered with proteins that have different shapes and functions. Some of the shapes are really critical to making the virus dangerous, while others are less essential.

The first time your body is infected by a virus that you’ve never been exposed to before, you don’t have any antibodies to help defend yourself. Luckily, there are other ways your immune system fights invaders until special antibody-making cells can get to work. But that takes awhile.

Eventually, after a few days of infection, those antibody making cells are ready and start cranking out antibodies. Antibodies are Y-shaped and have special arms that grab onto the different shapes of proteins on the surface of a virus. These surface proteins are called antigens. It’s important to understand the antibodies you make are directed at these different shaped antigens.

Some antibodies grab less important antigens on the surface of the virus. They might not neutralize the virus, but they mark it for destruction by other parts of the immune system.

Once you make antibodies against a specific antigen, your body keeps some circulating around in case that invading virus shows up again. The cells that made those antibodies also keep a record, so they can make antibodies faster the next time around.

When you make antibodies, they’re really directed at specific parts of a virus, not the entire virus. Not all antibodies are equal in strength against an invader.

Watch the videos above for the full report

About the Author

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.

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