Antibody tests for COVID-19 remain popular in Russia

Moscow, Oct. 2 (BUS): When Russians talk about the coronavirus at dinner or in hair salons, the conversation often turns to “antitela,” the Russian word for antibodies – the proteins the body produces to fight infection, according to the Associated Press (AP). AP) reported.

President Vladimir Putin even referred to them this week in a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bragging about why he avoided infection even though dozens of people around him have contracted the coronavirus, including one who spent an entire day with the Kremlin leader.

“I have high titers,” Putin said, referring to the measurement used to describe the concentration of antibodies in the blood. When Erdogan challenged him that the number Putin gave was low, the Russian insisted, “No, it’s a high level. There are different counting methods.”

But Western health experts say antibody tests, which are very popular in Russia, cannot be relied upon either to diagnose COVID-19 or to assess immunity against it. The antibodies these tests look for can only serve as evidence of previous infection, and scientists say it remains unclear what level of antibodies that indicate protection against the virus and for how long.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such tests should not be used to prove active COVID-19 infection because it can take one to three weeks for the body to make the antibodies. Health experts say that tests that look for the genetic material of the virus, called PCR tests, or tests that look for proteins of the virus, called antigen tests, should be used to determine if someone has been infected.

In Russia, it is common to take an antibody test and share the results. The tests are cheap, widely available and actively marketed by private clinics across the country, and their use appears to be a factor in the country’s low vaccination rate even as daily deaths and infections are once again on the rise.

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In Moscow and the surrounding region, millions of antibody tests were carried out in state-run clinics that offered them free of charge. Across the country, dozens of private lab and clinic chains are also offering a variety of COVID-19 antibody tests, as well as tests for other medical conditions.

Dr. Anton Barchuk, head of the epidemiology group at the European University in Saint Petersburg and associate professor at the Petrov National Cancer Center there said.

COVID-19 antibody tests were first announced widely in Moscow in May 2020, shortly after Russia lifted its only nationwide lockdown, although many restrictions remain. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an ambitious program to test tens of thousands of residents for antibodies.

Many Muscovites received this enthusiastically. Contrary to Western experts, some believed that antibodies represented immunity to the virus and saw a positive test as a way out of restrictions.

The test looked at two different types of antibodies: those that appear in an individual’s system soon after infection, and those that take weeks to appear. To their surprise, some of those who tested positive for the previous virus were diagnosed with COVID-19 and ordered to be quarantined.

Irina Amarova, 56, spent 22 days confined to her studio apartment, without experiencing any symptoms. Visiting physicians took six PCR tests that came back negative. But they also did more antibody tests, which went on to show a certain level of antibody.

“They kept telling me I was infected and needed to stay home,” she said.

More interest in antibody testing came this summer when Russia experienced a wave of infections. Demand for the tests rose so sharply that labs were overcrowded and some ran out of supplies.

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That’s when dozens of districts have made vaccinations mandatory for certain groups of people and restricted access to various public places, allowing only those who have been vaccinated, contracted the virus or tested positive recently.

Daria Goryakina, deputy director at Helix Laboratory Service, a large chain of testing facilities, said she believes the increased interest in antibody testing is linked to vaccination mandates.

In the second half of June, Helix conducted 230% more antibody tests than in the first half, and high demand continued into the first week of July. “People want to check their antibody levels and whether they need to be vaccinated,” Goryakina told The Associated Press.

Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend vaccination regardless of previous infection.

Guidance varied in Russia, with authorities initially saying those who tested positive for antibodies were not eligible for the vaccine, but then urging everyone to get vaccinated regardless of their antibody levels. However, some Russians believe that a positive antibody test was a reason to postpone vaccination.

Maria Pluckert recovered from the coronavirus in May, and a test she gave shortly after revealed an elevated antibody count. She’s stopped her vaccination but she wants to get it eventually, once her antibody levels start dropping. “As long as my antibody counters are high, I have protection from the virus, and there is no point in injecting more protection over it,” the 37-year-old Muscovite told the Associated Press.

Senior officials, such as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, were quoted as saying that they did not need to be vaccinated due to high levels of antibodies, but eventually decided to get vaccinated. their shots.

Dr. Anastasia Vasilieva, president of the Union of Physicians’ Alliance, said the discrepancy in the guidelines may have contributed to the low rate of vaccination in Russia.

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“People don’t understand[what they are doing]because they are constantly giving different versions” of the recommendations, she said.

Although Russia boasted of producing the world’s first vaccine, Sputnik V, only 32.5% of its 146 million population had received at least one injection, and only 28% had been fully vaccinated. Critics mainly blamed the failure of a vaccine and conflicting messages that authorities were sending about the outbreak.

Dr Simon Clark, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading in England, said antibody tests should not influence any health-related decisions.

He added that taking the antibody test was “for your personal satisfaction and curiosity.”

Barchuk, an epidemiologist in Saint Petersburg, echoed his sentiments, saying there are many gaps in understanding how the antibodies work, and the tests provide little information other than previous infections.

But some Russian regions have ignored this advice, using positive antibody tests to allow people access to restaurants, bars and other public places on par with a certificate of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. Some people have an antibody test before or after a vaccination to make sure the shot is effective or to see if they need a booster shot.

Dr. Vasily Vlasov, an epidemiologist and public health expert at the Higher School of Economics, says this stance reflects Russians’ mistrust of the state-run health care system and their struggle to overcome confusion amid the pandemic.

“People’s attempt to find a rational way to act, and to base their decision on something, for example antibodies, is understandable – the situation is difficult and confusing,” Vlasov said. They choose a method that is available to them rather than a good one. Because there is no good way to make sure you have immunity.”


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