Widespread coronavirus antibody testing will begin this week after a month of delays, but many of the kits are set to expire in early July and may go to waste, according to a television report on Sunday.
The serological tests are seen as a key component in finding out who already had the disease in order to better understand the spread of the disease and shape policy ahead of a possible second outbreak.
Though outgoing Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov announced the program in early May, the ministry did not offer any information about the testing, its scope or when it will begin.
According to Channel 12 news, the program is set to begin Tuesday with a pilot program focusing on ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak, the hardest-hit city from the virus.
Health maintenance organizations, which will administer the tests, will later expand the program to the rest of the country.
The antibody tests come as the country has seen a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases over the weekend, raising concerns of the virus’s resurgence and a possible second wave.
Antibody tests are different from the nasal swab tests currently used to diagnose active infections. Instead, the tests look for blood proteins called antibodies, which the body produces days or weeks after fighting an infection. Most use a finger-prick of blood on a test strip. An antibody test might show if the subject had COVID-19 in the recent past, which most experts think gives people some protection.
But studies are still underway to determine what antibody level would be needed for immunity. It’s also not yet known how long any immunity might last or whether people with antibodies can still spread the virus.
For now, antibody tests are most useful for researchers trying to track how the virus spreads in communities.
On May 5, Bar Siman-Tov told The New York Times that 100,000 serological test kits, obtained from firms in the United States and Italy for almost $40 million, were being prepared for use by health clinics across the country within a couple of weeks.
Channel 12 said the Health Ministry has purchased 2 million tests, of which 250,000 are currently languishing in storage and are set to expire by early July.
The project was held up by disagreements among health officials on how to implement the plan, including on the sample size within the population, work guidelines for labs and recruitment protocols of those being tested
Dr. Boaz Lev, head of the coronavirus treatment team at the Health Ministry, which is in charge of the pilot, told Ynet earlier this month that the plan was to carry out 3,000 tests per day to create a “situation map” of how many citizens have encountered the coronavirus.
“The serological tests don’t really show what is going on right now,” he said. “The tests [instead] show how many people have already encountered the virus and developed antibodies. If I got sick two or three months ago and developed antibodies, we can see that.”
The serological pilot program will focus on three groups: families where there was a verified patient, symptom-free families living in a building where a verified patient lives, and a random selection of families and individuals in the city.
At the beginning of April, Bnei Brak was the first city placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care.
The government hopes that by conducting such widespread testing, it will be able to determine if Israel is approaching herd immunity or if it is unprepared for a resurgence of the virus.
Bar Siman-Tov had said that if only a small percentage of Israelis were found to have COVID-19 antibodies, that could indicate the country’s health system may become swamped during a future outbreak.
Health experts around the world have regarded antibody tests as an acceptable means of determining lockdown policies and useful for monitoring purposes, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t yet declared that antibodies necessarily mean their carrier has immunity from reinfection.
Despite many reports of reinfections — including at least two cases in Israel — and the WHO saying last month that there was no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected against a second infection, most experts say those reports are likely due to problems with coronavirus tests, as opposed to a lack of immunity from reinfection.
Some experts around the world, including a senior official at the World Health Organization, have argued that reports of reinfected patients have been false positives, with the tests picking up on dead virus fragments.
Agencies contributed to this report.