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Testing for COVID-19 Antibodies at Home

Multidisciplinary Team Opens New Frontiers

This article has been modified from the original, which appeared in Northwestern Now. Read the full article.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, scientists wondered if someone who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, would have immunity following their illness, and for how long.

When you have a viral infection, your immune system creates antibodies in your blood that help fight the virus. If your blood contains antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, it means the virus was in your system at some point. These antibodies could be useful for vaccine development or treatment, so finding people who are carriers is important. And because you can have COVID-19 and have no symptoms, it’s possible people are walking around with antibodies and not even know it. Testing can help scientists learn the true infection rate in a community and better understand community spread.

Traditional antibody tests, also known as serology tests, can have limitations: Current finger stick blood tests conducted in a physician’s office, for example, are not always accurate. More precise lab tests require blood drawn directly from the vein.

The challenge, then, is to make antibody testing that is both convenient and accurate. Now a team of Northwestern University biological anthropologists, scientists and physicians has come together to do just that by developing an at-home antibody test for COVID-19. This inexpensive, relatively painless test would allow people to collect their own blood at home with a finger prick and send samples to a laboratory through the mail. The laboratory follows a precise testing process intended to deliver a highly accurate result. (Learn more about the lab’s process.)

“Widespread serological testing is essential for figuring out how the virus is spreading in the community, but it is very hard to screen large numbers of people when the tests require people to come to a healthcare provider,” says Elizabeth M. McNally, MD, PhD, director of the Center of Genetic Medicine, cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, and part of the team that developed the test. The team is using a dried blood spot method pioneered by Northwestern University Anthropologist Thomas McDade, PhD, which allows the blood sample to be safely sent in the mail.

By early May 2020, the test was being more formally evaluated before being rolled out across Chicagoland through a web-based platform.

Listen to a podcast with Dr. McNally discussing the team's work.

Serology Testing and Cancer

Serology testing research is also being supported at Northwestern Medicine at the request of the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which have asked Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University for assistance.

Leonidas C. Platanias, MD, director of Lurie Cancer Center, has responded by supplying samples of blood from patients who have recovered from COVID-19. The assistance makes sense because patients with cancer are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus, and the Lurie Cancer Center team is committed to supporting patients facing this new threat.

Learn more about COVID-19 and cancer and listen to a podcast with Dr. Platanias discussing the subject.

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Elizabeth M. McNally, MD
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