Serology, or antibody testing, is a blood test that looks for proteins (antibodies) made by the body’s immune system to indicate prior exposure to a virus, in this case SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
Responding to COVID-19
Follow UT Southwestern’s COVID-19 Research in Real-Time
UT Southwestern’s researchers and physicians are racing against time to find solutions to the global COVID-19 pandemic. More than 50 investigational studies, clinical trials, and biomedical research projects are under way in our laboratories, as scientists and clinicians work tirelessly to zero in on potential breakthroughs that could provide some lasting defense against the novel coronavirus.
As the largest academic medical center in North Texas, UT Southwestern is dedicated to the mission of turning discoveries into real-world treatments for our patients and the community. If you’d like to keep track of our progress, which is part of an international sprint to the finish line in the fight against COVID-19, please visit our Research Projects website.
Opportunities to Help with COVID-19 Research
Help Track COVID-19’s Spread with an App
Whether you’re sick or healthy, you can play a part in COVID-19 research. The COVID Symptom Tracker is an app created by doctors and scientists that studies the symptoms of COVID-19 and tracks its spread.
It’s a unique opportunity for anyone to help contribute to COVID-19 tracking and relief efforts. Data collected from the app will provide the health care system with critical information that can help slow the outbreak. In just a minute a day, you can report your health, get a daily estimate of COVID exposure in your area, and learn how to help slow any local outbreak.
UT Southwestern is participating in a range of COVID-19 clinical trials in order to bring the latest treatments to patients. We are always evaluating new potential trials, and our scientists have launched robust research efforts aimed at defining and better understanding the novel coronavirus. Together, the research and clinical trials will help inform better diagnostics, vaccine development, and ultimately improve our approach to prevention of COVID-19.
Clinical Trial Restrictions
In an effort to minimize the risks of COVID-19 to our patients, research participants, and staff, UT Southwestern has placed temporary restrictions on all clinical trials, including non-COVID-19 and COVID-19 related. As part of this temporary policy:
- Only treatment-related visits for drug therapies, medical devices, or interventions will continue.
- All in-person, nonessential research visits are suspended. This includes trials that may require direct participant interaction but no therapeutic benefit.
- Home visits for studies that have no direct or therapeutic benefit to participants will also be placed on hold.
- When alternative methods of interacting with research participants can be implemented, such as phone calls, Skype meetings, email, or U.S. mail, select trials may continue. When that is the case, participants will be informed by a member of the research team.
UT Southwestern will regularly evaluate these restrictions and adjust them as warranted. We’re keeping this site up-to-date with the most current guidelines and information.
COVID-19 Antibody Testing FAQs for Patients
Testing to detect the presence of antibodies that can fight the COVID-19 virus has taken center stage recently as the scientific community continues to search for ways to slow the global pandemic. A variety of tests is being offered nationwide, which to some extent has created some confusion surrounding the purpose and effectiveness of each. UT Southwestern infectious disease experts James “Brad” Cutrell, M.D. provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about antibody testing in general, and talks specifically about the the tests being used at UT Southwestern.
The COVID-19 test takes a nasal swab or saliva specimen and uses a technology called PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to detect when a person is actively infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus. Antibody testing takes a drop of blood from your finger and uses it to detect antibodies that indicate recent or prior exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
It usually takes one to two weeks after becoming sick with COVID-19 for your body’s immune system to make antibodies against the virus.
There are several different subtypes of antibodies, including IgM, IgG, and IgA. The current UT Southwestern antibody test detects IgG antibodies, or immunoglobulin G, which are the most common form of antibodies found in blood and body fluids.
A positive IgG result indicates that a person has been exposed to the virus. There is currently not enough information to know if a positive IgG result indicates the presence of protective immunity or how long immunity might last. It's also possible to have a positive IgG result and still be sick and infectious to someone else.
A negative result indicates that a person has not yet developed antibodies against the virus. This could be due to a lack of exposure to the virus, or because testing was done too early in the course of the COVID-19 disease (before 7-14 days of symptom onset), or due to a weakened immune system resulting from other treatments or medical conditions.
Preliminary results from internal testing at our lab and the manufacturer’s facility suggests this test is very accurate (low rate of false positive and false negative tests), and it has received emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some lesser tests have been shown to cross-react with antibodies of several strains of virus that cause the common cold, which are also coronaviruses. However, as additional data is generated, we will learn more about the accuracy of the test results in our patients.
The serology test may be used by your doctor to aid in the diagnosis of active infection with COVID-19, especially if your PCR test is negative and you have had symptoms for more than seven days. It also may be used to identify prior infection with COVID-19 if you had a similar illness in early 2020 that went undiagnosed. Additionally, the test can help researchers and public health officials better understand the scope of the COVID-19 disease. The test is not currently recommended for use in determining when someone can discontinue isolation or return to work.
There is still some uncertainty about the degree to which antibody test results indicate protection against future infection with SARS-CoV-2 (protective immunity), or how long any protection may last. Also, the testing capacity remains somewhat limited. Therefore, we are reserving the use of antibody testing for individuals whose results may help guide their care. If a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available or antibody testing capacity increases, that policy will change accordingly.
If your IgG serology is positive, you may be a candidate to donate convalescent plasma to help another individual who is sick with COVID-19. Convalescent plasma is a therapy that involves taking blood from a patient who has recovered from COVID-19, separating the antibody-rich plasma from their blood, and injecting it into patients who are still trying to fight the virus. You can visit UT Southwestern’s convalescent plasma website to find out more about the process and to register as a potential donor.
In the News
Drugs that are already approved by the FDA could hold promise in fighting COVID-19, according to computer modeling studies performed by UT Southwestern scientists, including Hesham Sadek, M.D., Ph.D. The findings could open new avenues for treating patients.
A protein produced by the human immune system can potently inhibit several coronaviruses, including the one behind the current COVID-19 outbreak. John Schoggins, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Microbiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, was part of the international team of investigators.
Using Plasma from Recovered COVID-19 Patients
The FDA recently approved emergency use of COVID-19 "convalescent" plasma, which is collected from people who have fully recovered from COVID-19. This provides an additional investigational therapy treatment option for critically ill patients.
People who have recovered from COVID-19 – those who previously tested positive and are now asymptomatic and test negative – have built up high levels of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that defend their body against the virus. Collecting plasma from a recovered individual and then injecting it into a person still fighting the virus could help stimulate a stronger immune response in the sick individual.
Convalescent plasma is collected using a specialized machine that separates red blood cells from the plasma, selectively culling plasma (which contains the antibodies needed to fight the virus) and returning red blood cells back to the donor. The convalescent plasma is then stored in a blood bank and can be used to transfuse critically ill patients.
Donors of COVID-19 plasma need to meet specific criteria to ensure the safety of the donor and the staff. These criteria are based on FDA requirements. To determine whether you meet the requirements, the first step is to undergo COVID-19 Donor screening performed through Carter BloodCare, our community blood center. Learn more about about donating or acquiring plasma.
Ask the Expert: Learnings from the Spanish Flu
As the number of COVID-19 cases grows worldwide, some have compared the virus to another global pandemic that dates back to the early 20th century: the Spanish flu. Watch our chat with epidemiologist Robert Haley, M.D., to learn whether it's an appropriate comparison. Watch the video