Israel to Pilot Antibody Testing in Coronavirus-Hit Bnei Brak

YERUSHALAYIM -
A Magen David Adom worker in protective gear, at a coronavirus testing complex in Bnei Brak, on April 1. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Health Ministry is preparing to start serological testing in the cornonavirus-stricken city of Bnei Brak as a pilot ahead of a nationwide testing campaign to determine the population’s readiness for a possible second wave of the coronavirus, Yediot Acharonot reported on Monday.

The tests are designed to show whether someone has already been infected with coronavirus and has developed an immunity to it. Once the tests have been trialed in Bnei Brak, they will then be used nationwide.

According to the report, the plan has received the approval of Rabbanim in Bnei Brak. The HMOs (Kupot Cholim) and the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research will participate in the pilot.

Last week, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, director general of the Health Ministry, said that Israel was planning to conduct 100,000 serological tests for coronavirus in an effort to determine the degree of infection in the population. Israel purchased 2.4 million testing kits several weeks ago.

The standard PCR tests that are now being used to detect coronavirus can only identify someone who is currently infected, while the serological blood tests can also identify those who have recovered and whose bodies have produced antibodies to the virus, often without them knowing that they were ever infected.

By starting the project in Bnei Brak and then extending it to other “red cities” with high rates of morbidity, Israel hopes to obtain a clear image of how the coronavirus has spread across the country.

“The serological tests don’t really show what is going on right now,” said Dr. Boaz Lev, the head of the Health Ministry’s epidemic unit, which is in charge of the pilot.

“The tests show how many people have already come into contact with the virus and developed antibodies. If I got sick two or three months ago and developed antibodies, we can see that,” he said.

“The [PCR] tests done with the swabs show whether or not someone has the virus at that moment in time, as compared to the serological tests that can show how many citizens have encountered the virus, forming a kind of map that says ‘this is the situation.'”

The pilot aims to test 3,000 people in Bnei Brak for the virus.

“We will know where we stand because to this day we can only speculate,” says Lev. “We will know what we have faced and perhaps what the future holds.”

The pilot will test residents of the city in three groups: The first group is 100-150 families that have had confirmed cases of the virus.

The second group is symptom-free families living in a building in which there had been a confirmed case, with some 100 families expected to participate.

The third group is a random sampling of households. The families tested in all three groups will include adults and children.

As with the other tests, the HMOs will inform the subjects of the results.

The serological test is performed as a regular blood test and will be conducted around the country at clinics belonging to the health maintenance organizations. They will also be conducted inside people’s homes, if the person in question is in self-isolation or unable to leave home for other medical reasons.

The tests are cheap to obtain and very simple to perform, with the results expected in 40 to 50 minutes.

The antibodies, which protect the body from the virus, are said to develop some two weeks following the initial exposure to the pathogen. It is still unclear, however, just how long the coronavirus antibodies remain active in the human body.

If the tests prove to be a success, they would revolutionize the way in which Israel has battled the virus until now.

The Health Ministry said that should the tests be effective, they will first be administered to at-risk populations such as the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and medical staff.

The tests will be conducted on a voluntary basis, health officials noted.