MOSCOW — When Russians talk about the coronavirus at dinner or at the hair salon, the conversation often turns to “antitella,” the Russian word for antibodies — proteins produced by the body to fight infection.
Even President Vladimir Putin mentioned him in a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week, bragging about why he avoided infection, even as dozens of people around him contracted the coronavirus. In which he spent the whole day with the Kremlin leader.
“I have high titers,” 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, “No, this is a high level. There are different counting methods.”
But Western health experts say the antibody tests so popular in Russia are either unreliable for diagnosing COVID-19 or for assessing immunity to it. The antibodies these tests look for can only serve as evidence of past infection, and scientists say it’s still unclear what levels of antibodies indicate protection against the virus and how many. by time.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says such tests should not be used to establish active COVID-19 infection because it can take one to three weeks for the body to make antibodies. Health experts say tests that look for the virus’s genetic material, called PCR tests, or that look for virus proteins, called antigen tests, should be used to determine whether anyone is infected.
In Russia, it is common practice to get an antibody test done and share the results. The tests are cheap, widely available and actively marketed by private clinics across the country, and their use appears to be a factor in the country’s low vaccination rate, even as daily deaths and infections continue to rise. .
In Moscow and the surrounding region, millions of antibody tests have been conducted at state-run clinics that offer them for free. Across the country, dozens of chains of private laboratories and clinics offer a variety of antibody tests for COVID-19 as well as tests for other medical conditions.
“In some of the cities I went to, I needed to do a PCR test and that was not possible, but I could have taken an antibody test – it was very easy,” said Dr Anton Barchuk, head of the epidemiology group at the European Institute of Medical Sciences. University in St. Petersburg and an associate professor at the Petrov National Cancer Center there.
Antibody tests for COVID-19 were first widely publicized in Moscow in May 2020, shortly after Russia lifted its only nationwide lockdown, although many restrictions remained in place. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced an ambitious program to test thousands of residents for antibodies.
Many Muscovites enthusiastically welcomed it. Contrary to Western experts, some believed the antibodies represented immunity to the virus and saw a positive test as a way out of restrictions.
The test looked at two different types of antibodies: those that show up in one’s system soon after infection, and those that take weeks to develop. To their surprise, some of those who tested positive for the former were assigned a COVID-19 diagnosis and ordered to quarantine.
56-year-old Irina Umarova spent 22 days in her studio apartment without any symptoms. The visiting doctors conducted six PCR tests which came back negative. But they also did more antibody tests, which continued to show a certain level of antibodies.
“They kept telling me I was infected and that I needed to stay at home,” she said.
More interest in antibody testing came this summer as infections spiked in Russia. Demand for tests grew so fast that laboratories were overwhelmed and some ran out of supply.
This happened after dozens of regions made vaccination mandatory for certain groups of people and restricted access to various public places, allowing only those who had been vaccinated, had the virus, or had recently contracted it. had tested negative for
Daria Goryakina, deputy director at the Helix Laboratory Service, a large chain of testing facilities, said she believed the increased interest in antibody testing was linked to the vaccination mandate.
In the second half of June, Helix conducted 230% more antibody tests than in the first half, and the high demand continued into the first week of July. “People want to check their antibody levels and whether they need vaccinations,” Gorykina told the Associated Press.
Both the World Health Organization and the CDC recommend vaccination regardless of previous infection.
Guidance differs in Russia, with officials initially saying those who tested positive for antibodies were not eligible for the shot, but then urged everyone to get vaccinated regardless of their antibody levels. Nevertheless, some Russians believed that a positive antibody test was a reason to discontinue vaccination.
Maria Bloquart recovered from the coronavirus in May, and she underwent a test shortly after revealing a high antibody count. She has stopped her vaccinations but wants to finally get it, once her antibody levels start to drop. “As long as my antibody titers are high, I have protection against the virus, and on top of that there’s no point in injecting with more protection,” the 37-year-old Muscovite told the AP.
High-profile officials such as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and speaker of the upper house of parliament, Valentina Matvienko, have been quoted as saying they did not need vaccinations due to high levels of antibodies, but that they ultimately decided to get his shot.
Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, leader of the Alliance of Doctors union, said conflicting guidelines may have contributed to Russia’s low vaccination rate.
“People don’t understand (what to do), because they are constantly given different versions”, she said.
Even though Russia claims to have created the world’s first vaccine, Sputnik V, only 32.5% of its 146 million people have received at least one shot, and only 28% have been fully vaccinated. Critics have mainly blamed a failed vaccine rollout and mixed messages sending officials about the outbreak.
Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading in England, said antibody testing should not influence any health-related decision.
Getting the antibody test done is “for your own personal satisfaction and curiosity,” he said.
Petersburg epidemiologist Barchuk echoed his sentiment, saying there are huge gaps in understanding how antibodies work, and the tests provide little information beyond previous infections.
But some Russian regions disregarded that advice, using positive antibody tests to allow people with a vaccination certificate or a negative coronavirus test to access restaurants, bars and other public places. Some people get an antibody test before or after vaccination to make sure the shot works or to see if they need a booster.
An epidemiologist and a public health expert at the Higher School of Economics, Dr. Vasily Vlasov says this attitude reflects Russians’ mistrust of the state-run health care system and their struggle to navigate the confusion amid the pandemic.
“People’s attempts to find a rational way of acting, basing their judgment on something, for example antibodies, is understandable – the situation is difficult and frightening,” said Vlasov. “And they opt for a method that is available to them rather than a good one. Because there’s no good way to be sure you have immunity.”
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