Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that U.S. health officials were preparing to roll out blood tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration that will identify Americans who have been exposed to the coronavirus and may harbor immunity. With that data, he said, the government could in theory issue certificates of immunity to help hasten the reopening of normal life.
Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases on President Trump’s coronavirus task force, said in an interview with CNN that a “large number” of antibody tests approved last week by the FDA would be available “within a period of a week.”
Unlike the swab tests used to diagnose whether a person is currently infected, antibody tests reveal the presence of immune proteins in the blood signifying a past infection — even one that caused no symptoms — that can protect against the disease in the future. They can also be harvested as a treatment for patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. But many questions remain unanswered about the degree and longevity of coronavirus immunity.
“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, because it’s very likely that there are a large number of people out there that have been infected, have been asymptomatic and did not know they were infected,” Fauci told CNN. “If their antibody test is positive, one can formulate strategies about whether or not they would be at risk or vulnerable to getting reinfected. This will be important for health care workers, for first-line fighters, those kinds of people.”
Antibody tests are already being used in countries like China, Germany and Finland to track the spread of the coronavirus, but the U.S., which has by far the largest number of reported cases to date, has yet to make them widely available.
One idea being discussed in Germany and the U.S. is to issue certificates of immunity for people who show evidence of antibodies in their blood.
“It’s one of those things that we talk about when we want to make sure that we know who the vulnerable people are and not,” Fauci said. “This is something that’s being discussed. I think it might have some merit under certain circumstances.”
In theory, individuals with immunity certificates would be exempt from social distancing protocol and could return to work or normal life without the risk of infecting others.
At Friday’s coronavirus task force briefing, Trump said that he wasn’t clear how long immunity from COVID-19 antibodies would last. “Nobody has told me with certainty," Trump said, adding, without evidence, that “it will be (at least) a year."
Given how far behind other countries the U.S. is in administering the swab tests, setting up a reliable system for issuing certificates or cards indicating immunity to the disease presents numerous challenges. Any such program would have to be scaled for America’s population of 330 million, the third-largest in the world, and designed to be safe from fraud. Within hours of Fauci’s appearance on CNN, Rep. Justin Amash, the Michigan Republican turned independent, raised civil-liberties issues in a tweet.
So police and government officials can stop us wherever we go and demand to see our papers?— Justin Amash (@justinamash) April 10, 2020
How about no. https://t.co/WCMMyaa6iq
But with the global economy in virtual free fall, the rush to return to normal may require unprecedented steps.
As the president pushes for a reopening of the country “very, very, very, very soon,” Fauci remains hesitant to sign off on plans he deems shortsighted.
“We would want to see, I would want to see, a clear indication that you are very clearly and strongly going in the right direction, because the one thing you don’t want to do is is you don’t want to get out there prematurely and then wind up back in the same situation,” Fauci said.
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.