Mass Testing for Coronavirus Antibodies Might Save the Economy

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems nuts that Americans didn’t assume that the novel coronavirus would make its way from China to the United States within a day or two after first appearing in China. We live in a highly interconnected world. What happens in Wuhan China will come to Los Angeles in the time that it takes a passenger jet to cross the Pacific Ocean. And that’s exactly what appears to have happened.

I’m a cartoonist, not a scientist, but it’s hard to escape the anecdotal evidence (prompted in part responses to my blog a week ago in which I suspected that I had this nasty virus in January) that many Americans have been unknowingly infected by the COVID-19 virus as early as January, perhaps even November or December. The United States intelligence community warned the Trump administration that that would happen early, and appears that they were right.

Assuming that COVID-19 acts like many other viruses and that having had it leaves a recovered patient with substantial antibody immunity, this means that the type of testing could point the way forward toward economic recovery. This is even truer if recovery from COVID-19 means complete immunity and thus no risk infection from this strain, or transmission to others. (All bets are off if there’s a quick mutation.)

A team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York has developed a SARS-CoV-2 antibody test. This test serves two purposes: it will both tell you whether you actively have a disease or if you have ever had it in the past.

The government should pull out all the stops to make this test available to every American.

If we can start greenlighting infection-free and infection-proof Americans proven to have recovered from COVID-19, they can resume their jobs, go back to work and assist with people who are sick and getting sick.

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About Ted Rall

Ted Rall is the political cartoonist at, editor-in-chief of, a graphic novelist and author of many books of art and prose, and an occasional war correspondent. He is the author of the biography "Trump," to be published in July 2016.

6 thoughts on “Mass Testing for Coronavirus Antibodies Might Save the Economy

  1. I dunno, Ted. Helping the sick? With no risk to myself? That sounds a lot like communist, you red-loving godless atheist.

    Clearly, you have a competent, intelligent idea that would serve an immediate, necessary purpose. If it ever comes to pass, I will be amazed. I’m still surprised they let Salk’s vaccine through. “But, but, but, think of the iron-lung manufacturers!”

    I see from the very little polling evidence available so far, that Biden is beginning to slip and Sanders is beginning to rise in the state polls. Am I hopelessly naive to think that people are seeing that while Biden is either hiding like some sad little weak-kneed trembling coward, too far into his dotardage to be able to go live, or so far gone from the virus that he’s on a ventilator, Bernie Sanders, who was right about medicare for all (and everything else), has been raising money for the people who are being harmed right now by this coronavirus.

    Is it possible Sanders could still snag the nomination?

    • The gap between the last primaries and the next ones, plus Biden’s impotence in the face of this crisis contrasted with Sanders’ obvious relevance, could well change the dynamic again. The question is, will it change enough?

  2. This is not exactly an easy subject matter. The full picture will be available only in hindsight; still, according to WHO reports, a consistent picture has emerged so far. We need to primarily confront the by far most likely scenarios that we are facing over the next weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people at serious risk of dying in the US alone, perhaps millions.

    While I’m not an epidemiologist, it seems clearly impossible for Ted to have carried the virus this early, certainly not with the version of the virus that we are now experiencing. This can be shown by a back-of-the-envelope calculation:

    A key property of the novel Corona virus is that it is spreading exponentially, doubling the number of infected people every 3-5 days or so. Thus the virus will multiply a 1000-fold after 10 such cycles. There have been ~80 days since January 1st, likely enough time for a patient zero to infect, say, ~32 million people (25 cycles), as the spreading would have been left largely unchecked for most of this period. [This is a very conservative estimate as Ted would already have been among a group of infected people rather than being patient 0 himself and was speculating about an earlier start date]

    Therefore, randomly testing people off the streets would get positive test results aplenty by now under this scenario; Also, even with an low-balled mortality rate of only 0.1% (like the seasonal flu) this would have resulted in ~300.000 additional deaths somehow gone unnoticed (constituting a ~50% increase of the overall mortality rate), overwhelmed hospitals, etc.

    Instead, the outbreak we are seeing in the US and Europe is unfortunately very much in line with an earlier phase of the pandemic with a higher, possibly much higher mortality rate (which will sharply increase after we have run out of intensive care units leaving patients to die which otherwise would have been saved)…

    We need to work towards completely stopping the spread of the virus ASAP to avert the worst outcomes. Seriously.

    as well as the Imperial College London study referenced therein

    • ok, it seems I jumped the gun in the previous comment.

      At least some modellers do start the clock with a patient 0 in early January for the US with a ~5 day doubling rate (and with a lot more nuance and geographic densities etc):

      Then again, many countries are now reporting a doubling rate of 3-4 days, hence my confusion. It seems like the next few weeks are going to be crucial in any case.

      If the ICL model is to be believed, Ted would have to be among the first select group of cases in the US…

      This is highly improbable, but certainly not impossible, so I stand corrected on that score.

      Would be interesting to find out, especially wrt to re-infection immunity or lack thereof, but then again I’m not an expert and should therefore shut up now 😉

      • Living in Tucson, we have people from people all over the world for the gem show arriving in January. I thought it could have been possible to be here too. I was very sick and had pneumonia as well as my entire household became sick (as well as many other people during that time period.) We were very careful of avoiding other people during this time period. If it was possible that we could have had it, I would be interested in participating in any tests to see if I had antibodies. I would be relieved to know if I had. We are hoping that it’s true when told our weather gives us a better chance in fighting it.

  3. Three points:

    1) There can easily be compiled a VERY long list of critically-needed “shoulds” for the exceptionally self-deluded (and wa … aaay sub-mediocre) USA. If the US were the type of society that it must be to realize Ted’s suggestion, then, the entire coronavirus disaster would likely have been impeccably prepared for and, thus, dealt with effectively … making Ted’s suggestion moot. That is, I’m suggesting no one sit on a hot stove waiting for implementation of the suggestion, however meritorious.

    2) Re: the anti SARS-CoV-2 antibody test “will both tell you whether you actively have a disease or if you have ever had it in the past.” Active disease vs. former disease are profoundly different. Those persons with active disease obviously cannot be “greenlighted” back into society. If the antibody test cannot differentiate then another way must be employed concurrently to do so.

    There is every expectation that persons with the active disease have both infectious virus particles and antibodies to them (i.e. components of them). So, the suggested project would have to include a second test, that for the presence of viral RNA, that is, potentially infectious virus particles, a sign of active disease.

    Only those negative for viral RNA and positive for anti SARS-CoV-2 antibodies could conceivably be
    “greenlighted” back into society.

    3) It interesting to note that the author of the cited Science magazine article suggests a whole range of uses for the newly developed test but most of them are to further understand the mechanism of the virus infection and the epidemiology of its transmission through populations. The only proposed utilization of people “greenlighted” who have anti-viral antibodies is “to treat patients safely or take on other front-line jobs during the pandemic.”

    The biggest risk now (after, of course, the complete collapse of a chronically disinvested, thus woefully inadequate, healthcare infrastructure) would be to indulge the justifiable urge to quickly “return to normal” that only exacerbates the problem. If the New Numb Nutts Nero’s diddling is any predictor, the US is on the verge of a true disaster and “greenlighted” persons should be recruited to assist.

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