MOSCOW – When Russians talk about the coronavirus over dinner or at hair salons, the conversation often turns to âantitela,â the Russian word for antibody – proteins produced by the body to fight infection.
Even President Vladimir Putin brought them up this week in a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, bragging about why he had avoided infection even though dozens of people around him caught the coronavirus, including someone. ‘one who spent a whole day with the head of the Kremlin.
âI have high titers,â Putin said, referring to the measurement used to describe the concentration of antibodies in the blood. When Erdogan challenged him that the number given by Putin was low, the Russian insisted, âNo, it’s a high level. There are different counting methods.
But Western health experts say the antibody tests so popular in Russia are unreliable either for diagnosing COVID-19 or for assessing immunity against it. The antibodies these tests look for can only serve as evidence of a past infection, and scientists say it’s still not clear what level of antibodies indicates protection against the virus and for how long.
The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said such tests should not be used to establish active infection with COVID-19 because it can take one to three weeks for the body to produce antibodies. Health experts say tests that look for the genetic material of the virus, called PCR tests, or those that look for viral proteins, called antigen tests, should be used to determine if a person is 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 nationwide, and their use appears to be a factor in the country’s low vaccination rate even as daily deaths and infections rise again.
In Moscow and the surrounding region, millions of antibody tests were performed at state-run clinics that offered them free of charge. Across the country, dozens of private laboratory and clinic chains also offer a wide variety of antibody tests for COVID-19, as well as tests for other medical conditions.
“In some cities where I went I had to take a PCR test and it was not possible, but I could take an antibody test – it was much easier,” said Dr Anton Barchuk, head of the epidemiology group at the European University of St. Petersburg and associate professor at the Petrov National Cancer Center there.
Antibody tests for COVID-19 were first released widely in Moscow in May 2020, shortly after Russia lifted its only national lockdown, though many restrictions remained in place. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an ambitious program to test tens of thousands of residents for antibodies.
Many Muscovites greeted this enthusiastically. Unlike Western experts, some believed the antibodies represented immunity to the virus and viewed a positive test as a way out of the restrictions.
The test looked at two different types of antibodies: those that appear in the system soon after infection and those that take weeks to develop. To their surprise, some of those who tested positive for the first were diagnosed with COVID-19 and have been placed in quarantine.
Irina Umarova, 56, spent 22 days confined to her studio, feeling no symptoms. Visiting doctors carried out six PCR tests which came back negative. But they also performed more antibody tests, which continued to show some level of antibodies.
âThey kept telling me that I was infected and that I had to stay home,â she said.
Greater interest in antibody testing came this summer when Russia experienced a wave of infections. The demand for testing has grown so much that labs have been overwhelmed and some have run out of supplies.
It was at this point that dozens of regions made vaccination compulsory for certain groups of people and restricted access to various public spaces, only allowing those who were vaccinated, had had the virus or had been tested. negatives recently.
Daria Goryakina, deputy director of the Helix Laboratory Service, a large chain of testing facilities, said she believed the increased interest in antibody testing was related to vaccination mandates.
In the second half of June, Helix performed 230% more antibody tests than in the first half, and strong demand continued through the first week of July. âPeople want to check their antibody levels and whether they need to be vaccinated,â Goryakina told The Associated Press.
The World Health Organization and CDC recommend vaccination regardless of previous infection.
Guidelines in Russia have varied, with authorities initially saying people who test positive for antibodies were not eligible for the vaccine, but then urging everyone to get the shot regardless of their antibody level. Still, some Russians believed that a positive antibody test was a reason to postpone vaccination.
Maria Bloquert recovered from the coronavirus in May, and a test she performed shortly after revealed a high number of antibodies. She has postponed her vaccination but wants to receive it eventually, once her antibody levels start to drop. âAs long as my antibody titers are high, I have protection against the virus, and there is no point in getting more and more protection injected,â the 37-year-old Muscovite told AP.
High-level officials like Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house of parliament, both said they did not need to be vaccinated due to their high rate of vaccination. antibody, but they finally decided to get the vaccine. their blows.
Conflicting guidelines may have contributed to the low vaccination rate in Russia, said Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, union leader of the Alliance of Doctors.
âPeople don’t understand (what to do) because they’re constantly being given different versionsâ of the recommendations, she said.
Even though Russia boasted of having created the world’s first vaccine, Sputnik V, only 32.5% of its 146 million people received at least one injection, and only 28% are fully vaccinated. Critics mainly blamed a botched vaccine rollout and mixed messages authorities sent about the outbreak.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cell microbiology at the University of Reading in England, said antibody testing should not influence health-related decisions.
Getting an antibody test “is for your personal satisfaction and curiosity,” he added.
Barchuk, the St. Petersburg epidemiologist, echoed his sentiment, saying there are too many gaps in understanding how antibodies work and that the tests offer little information beyond past infection. .
But some Russian regions have ignored this advice, using positive antibody tests to allow people to access restaurants, bars and other public places on par with a vaccination certificate or negative coronavirus test. Some people have an antibody test before or after vaccination to make sure the vaccine has worked or to see if they need a booster.
Dr Vasily Vlassov, epidemiologist and public health expert at the Higher School of Economics, says this attitude reflects Russians’ distrust of the public health system and their struggle to navigate confusion amid the pandemic.
“People’s attempt to find a rational way to act, to base their decision on something, for example antibodies, is understandable – the situation is difficult and confusing,” Vlassov said. âAnd they choose a method that is accessible to them rather than a good one. Because there is no right way to make sure you have immunity.
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