Israel Gears Up to Begin Large-scale Coronavirus Antibody Testing

The tests will target places that have had a spike in cases, as well as among people such as medical personal and police who have wide contact with members of the public

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A drive-through swab coronavirus testing center in Bnei Brak.
A drive-through swab coronavirus testing center in Bnei Brak.Credit: Moti Milrod
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

The Israeli Health Ministry is expected to start wide-ranging coronavirus antibody blood testing over the next two weeks among members of the general public to get a better sense of the extent to which the coronavirus has spread around the country.

The blood testing will initially be centered on so-called red zones, where there has been a high incidence of COVID-19, as well as among people in positions involving extensive contact the public, such as medical personnel and police officers.

Some 5,000 blood tests are planned for the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, which experienced a huge spike in cases, in addition to thousands of tests in other red zones. The testing will be carried out for general survey purposes rather than to diagnose individual cases.

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Israel bought 2.4 million blood kits last month at a cost of 110 million shekels ($31 million) with the aim of using them as part of an exit strategy from the coronavirus pandemic. (That exit is now well underway).

A ministry source noted that the tests had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but officials are still verifying that the kits meet the criteria set by the manufacturer before they begin using them in a week or two.

These blood tests – or serological tests, as they are known – are currently being administered on patients and staff at some of the country’s hospitals, in part to confirm coronavirus diagnostic tests that make use of swabs, which are estimated to be about 70 percent accurate.

The medical community initially viewed community blood testing as a tool that could pave the way for the lifting of lockdowns, since the presence of antibodies in a person’s blood would suggest their possible immunity from infection or that they are carriers of the virus. But the World Health Organization has said that the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that individuals are immune from reinfection or cannot still spread transmit the virus.

“Unfortunately the serological tests cannot be used for individual treatment purposes because we still don’t know whether someone who develops antibodies has recovered from the illness and whether they are no longer contagious,” the deputy director general of the Health Ministry, Prof. Itamar Grotto, told the Knesset’s coronavirus committee this week. The validity of the testing needs to be established before it can be used for individual diagnoses, he added.

“The tests will mainly be used to survey public exposure, whether among children or adults. That will help us track the prevalence of the disease. These tests will enable us to locate those who were infected but didn’t develop symptoms, and in this way, we can get a better picture.”

Whether herd immunity exists for the coronavirus is still an open question. While no proof has yet been found, many experts believe that there is a degree of immunity developed by those who have been infected and have recovered from the virus.

Volunteers arrive at an Italian nursing home near Rome to carry out serological coronavirus tests, April 2020.Credit: Mauro Scrobogna/AP

Experts believe that when the immune system confronts the virus a second time around, it will respond differently and moderate the impact, perhaps even providing immunity to those who have recovered. Experts also believe the serological tests will help understand what the cumulative rate of contagion has been for the virus – in other words, what portion of the population has been infected and has recovered from the coronavirus. The tests will also make it possible to obtain a geographic analysis of rates of infection and the degree of risk of future outbreaks, experts have said.

Grotto himself addressed the issue several weeks ago at a session of the Knesset coronvirus committee. “Reopening the economy will require that we rely on serological tests. Staff from the Health Ministry, the Mossad [espionage agency] and Intelligence Corps are working to identify any new test that comes out onto the market,” he said at time.

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