By Deepak Nath, Ph.D.
As the Centers for Disease Control delivered its latest round of positive pandemic news—fully vaccinated travelers are less likely to get and spread COVID-19 —the agency let loose a counterpunch: cases are up, deaths are up, variants are spreading.
The overarching message: Be vigilant.
But how? For individuals, precautions remain much the same: masks, distancing, limit exposure, limit travel. But for the leaders who keep businesses open, people employed, kids in school and transportation running, the plan hasn’t been quite so clearly sketched out. And to ensure the health of people tomorrow, decision-makers must act effectively today.
When a pandemic stretches healthcare resources, the goal is to prevent severe disease. With an all-hands approach to vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, the FDA has appropriately approved a variety of vaccines. But, still, there are more questions to answer—most especially: how do we prepare for what comes next?
As a manufacturer of diagnostic tests that have contributed to the pandemic response, we had a front seat to the global healthcare response and can help deliver these answers. More than a year into the pandemic, the medical and scientific communities have accumulated and analyzed mountains of COVID-19 data. We’re beginning to gain deeper understanding of how vaccines affect the population. Data indicates, for example, that when a vaccinated person is infected, the likelihood of severe disease is lessened, and with a reduced viral load, so may be the likelihood they’ll transmit it to others.
But the intricacies of how this varies across populations, and vaccines, is a complicated puzzle—and the data provided by systematic antibody testing for the public is one critical piece. By conducting that research now, a plethora of answers emerges. For example, we don’t know how long each vaccinated person will stay protected from future infections. Or if they’ll need booster shots. Or when.
These are attainable answers that our government, industry, and pharmaceutical companies, in particular, can help alleviate by sponsoring a widely available, systematic antibody testing program for the public. Coupling antibody testing with the vaccine effort will help us understand the duration and persistence of an individual’s immune response post-vaccination, identify when we reach herd immunity, and help determine whether or when booster shots may be required.
This combination of testing is commonplace for some other vaccines. Antibody testing alongside the hepatitis B vaccination, for example, enables caregivers to assess the need to deliver a booster shot. And to prove an immune response to fight the virus developed, COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers used SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests in their clinical trials.
Antibody tests are simple blood tests regularly used in clinical practice. They are widely available, inexpensive, and results may be obtained on the same day. Disruption to test participants is minimal: The first tests can be given three or four weeks after the second vaccine dose (or the only dose) to confirm the antibody response and ensure that response reflects immunocompetency. Additional tests can be administered nine to twelve months after the vaccine to confirm the persistence and duration of a strong immune response (and when it is determined immunity). These tests also can help identify whether a booster vaccine may be required, and when.
At each milestone, the expanded testing pool provides researchers with the information to identify trends in populations that weren’t necessarily part of initial trial groups—older adults, teens, people with underlying conditions, or frontline health professionals who could be more at risk should a resurgence of the virus take place. The wider the group that participates, the more scientists can evaluate populations with a known risk of an insufficient immune response. The immunology of COVID-19 is complex, and antibody levels are key measures, among other potential ones. Using data to look at trends is, after all, the heart of population health management.
A larger public health benefit comes from the invaluable details that can steer the development of future vaccines to become even more effective, especially against potential variants of the virus. Antibody testing can further inform medical policymakers about when communities have reached herd immunity, which kinds of establishments should take greater precautions, and how we can all effectively keep one another safe.
We know that people respond to the vaccines in different ways, and individual results don’t reflect what’s going on in a community. Large-scale antibody testing will play a key role in promoting public health now and in the future. By evaluating how people respond over time, we can apply scientific evidence as an effective front against future outbreaks rather than relying on ad hoc approaches.
An undertaking of this magnitude requires a partnership of governments and private industry resources—time, people and money—to learn about the antibodies keeping us safe. But even now, private industry is teaming up with government agencies at all levels to distribute and administer vaccines, so we have a working example of what’s possible. It’s no small task, but it’s achievable. Our fight against COVID-19 has launched in earnest. We’ve implemented contact tracing. We’ve implemented mass scale vaccination. Antibody testing is the next piece that will give us clear data and information to help our world return to normal and discover new horizons that will deliver benefits well into the future. We can do this.
Deepak Nath, Ph.D., is the president of Laboratory Diagnostics at Siemens Healthineers, one of the world’s largest laboratory diagnostics businesses. Dr. Nath has 20 years of wide-ranging leadership experience in healthcare.
About Siemens Healthineers
Siemens Healthineers AG (listed in Frankfurt, Germany: SHL) is shaping the future of healthcare. As a leading medical technology company headquartered in Erlangen, Germany, Siemens Healthineers enables healthcare providers worldwide through its regional companies to increase value by empowering them on their journey towards expanding precision medicine, transforming care delivery, improving the patient experience, and digitalizing healthcare. Siemens Healthineers is continuously developing its product and service portfolio, with AI-supported applications and digital offerings that play an increasingly important role in the next generation of medical technology. These new applications will enhance the company’s foundation in in-vitro diagnostics, image-guided therapy, in-vivo diagnostics, and innovative cancer care. Siemens Healthineers also provides a range of services and solutions to enhance healthcare providers’ ability to provide high-quality, efficient care to patients. In fiscal 2020, which ended on September 30, 2020, Siemens Healthineers generated revenue of €14.5 billion and adjusted EBIT of €2.2 billion. Following the acquisition of Varian Medical Systems, Inc. the company has approximately 65,000 employees worldwide.