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COVID-19 Antibody Test Accuracy In Question

MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- The CDC says the COVID-19 antibody tests, used to determine if people have been infected in the past, could be wrong up to half the time. It recommends they not be used to decide who returns to work.

This comes as two major testing companies, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, are rolling out expanded testing programs.

In collaboration with the Journalism Company "Clear Health Costs," CBS News has been looking into those programs.

Many people want antibody tests.

Quest launched a program this week for employers that it calls, "Return to Work," which includes those antibody tests.

The company, Holiday Retirement, which runs 261 independent living communities for senior citizens nationwide, signed up.

CEO Lilly Donohue wants to test her 8,000 employees.

"Frankly, if you know that most of your employees are tested positive for the immunity, you may prioritize how that person works, right?" said Donohue.

She hopes the program will help her figure out how best to deploy them.

"So if you have a positive case in your community where there's a resident that has COVID, it may make sense for that, for that immunity or, you know, the person who tested positive to be doing more of the interaction," said Donohue.

Quest's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Wohlgemuth says the tests are useful.

"Once we identify a person who has a positive antibody test and we've determined that they are not currently infected with the virus, we now know that that person is very unlikely to bring the virus with them into the workplace," said Dr. Wohlgemuth.

Quest is also now offering antibody tests 'on-demand' to consumers on its website, for $119 dollars plus a ten-dollar service fee.

In marketing emails, the company calls the test an "immune response" blood test and says "understanding this gives you insight on whether it's right to return to work, school, and activity."

Dr. Michael Osterholm, who heads the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, does not agree with that statement.

"Many of the individuals who end up being test positive are going to be false positive, meaning that they don't really have the antibody. Even if you do have it, we don't know what it means yet. And so I think it's very premature to market these tests like this. And I think that it's almost preying on the vulnerability of the public today," he said. "I think selling antibody tests to the general public right now is just plain wrong."

But Quest's Dr. Wohlgemuth disagrees saying the tests his company uses are "clinically-validated and appropriate" and "does provide insight to an individual and whether they're likely to bring a virus into the workplace or not." He added, "I think we need to be clear that this testing is not used to determine who goes back and who does not go back to work. And so, you know, to your point, if there is any language there that that appears to indicate that, then that's something that we would remedy."

Quest says consumers have physician oversight, and it says tests can be helpful for both individuals and employers if they're "considered in proper context."

However, CBS Medical Contributor Dr. David Agus tells his patients not to get antibody tests, because he can't tell them whether they definitively have immunity.

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