FOX23 Investigates: Testing for COVID-19 antibodies

TULSA, Okla. — There’s a way to find out if you’ve had COVID-19 and it’s not through traditional testing: it’s by giving blood.

Showing up at the Oklahoma Blood Institute in south Tulsa is nothing new for Emily McGowan. She donates blood as often as she can.

“Yeah, this is actually my ninth time,” McGowan said.

“To give back to the community, in my opinion, this is the easiest way to give back.”

But what McGowan didn’t know, at the same time as she donates blood, OBI can test her for coronavirus antibodies.

“I just found out about it,” McGowan said.

After people contract COVID-19, they develop antibodies to protect them against the virus. A simple blood test can detect these little fighters.

Find local coronavirus updates here

Those positive for antibodies can take a life-saving next step and donate convalescent plasma. Their plasma goes to patients suffering from the virus in the hospital.

OBI accepted its first plasma donation from a recovered COVID-19 patient in April, says Chief Medical Officer Dr. Twan Le.

“Each donor can donate up to four units, so their donation can go to four patients or save four lives... The concept of convalescent plasma isn’t new. It’s from the 1918 Spanish Flu or pandemic where this plasma was used. It’s quite fascinating we’re relying on medical experience from 100 years ago,” Dr. Le said.

OBI Director of Donor Recruitment Sandy Neuzil says OBI started offering antibody testing to every blood donor in June.

“It was exciting because people wanted to know. There were so many people who had COVID or thought they had COVID,” Neuzil said.

“I think it’s pretty cool that they give you the opportunity to see if you have the antibody in your system to see if you were positive for COVID because some people are asymptomatic, so you’re not sure if you have it or not,” McGowan said.

Antibody testing may have helped blood donations immensely. When the pandemic hit, many people stopped donating at first.

OBI shows a big dip in donations in March, April and May of 2020, but after they started offering antibody testing, the donations spiked in June and July. Even compared to June and July of the previous year, the numbers were up.

“So many people are wanting to be tested because we are doing testing with every whole blood donation that’s increasing those numbers. That’s a good thing we’re finding more people that do have antibodies, so we can do more convalescent plasma donations through them,” Neuzil said,

“People are curious to see if they had COVID like we were saying earlier some people don’t know. If they come give blood, they can see if they had it,” McGowan said.

OBI says their latest numbers show about 25 percent of the people donating blood test positive for coronavirus antibodies.

Neuzil says if you test positive for antibodies, that means you did have COVID-19, but no one knows for sure if it provides future protection from the virus.

“Having antibodies to the virus that causes COVID-19 may provide protection from getting infected with the virus again,” the CDC says.

“But even if it does, we do not know how much protection the antibodies may provide or how long this protection may last. Confirmed and suspected cases of reinfection have been reported, but remain rare.”

Of those who have tested positive for antibodies at OBI, about 23 percent donated convalescent plasma.

Youssef Aly made a point to donate convalescent plasma. He told FOX23 how sick COVID-19 made him.

“Yeah I got scared to be honest, and I didn’t know what to do,” Aly said.”

“I will be honest. For a time I thought I would not recover from it.”

Aly says he made a promise to himself that if he survived, he wanted to give plasma to help others. And true to his word, after he recovered, he donated his plasma at OBI.

“I’m glad I did,” Aly said.

McGowan ended up testing negative for antibodies but says she’ll keep checking each time she donates blood because wants to help.

Here’s a schedule of upcoming blood drives in Green Country: