Tip sheet can aid your reporting on COVID-19 serology/antibody testing

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: NIAID via FlickrColorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample.

For the first six weeks of the pandemic, problems with PCR testing for the COVID-19 viral infection dominated headlines. Now that serology testing — testing for antibodies to COVID-19 — is picking up steam, there is important context and uncertainty that readers may not be getting.

A new AHCJ tip sheet addresses some of the most important questions to address in reporting on serology testing, as well as recommended reading on the topic. For example, this Lifehacker article does a great job of laying out some of the significant issues with antibody testing.

It’s also helpful to follow epidemiologists on Twitter (check out the #epitwitter hashtag) to see what they’re saying about studies, especially as preprints are posted. For example, one of the most highly publicized serology studies, COVID-19 Antibody Seroprevalence in Santa Clara County, California, is undergoing extensive criticism from epidemiologists and other experts in blogs and on Twitte. One excellent analysis is this blog post by biostatistician Andrew Gelman.

Though careful to note that he’s not an expert in epidemiology or infectious disease, Will Fithian, Ph.D., an assistant professor of statistics at the University of California Berkeley, points out in this Twitter thread (unrolled here) what he considers examples of statistical and other sloppiness in the Santa Clara study.

One of the most helpful Twitter resources on serology studies is this excellent thread (unrolled here) by Natalie Dean, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Florida. Dean, who specializes in emerging infectious diseases, notes some best practices for serology studies that are partly drawn from WHO guidance.

It’s also important to understand what serology studies and results mean — and don’t mean — when it comes to herd immunity. Take the time to read this excellent thread by Carl Bergstrom on herd immunity (unrolled here), which he followed up with this add-on thread (unrolled here).

For a brief overview of antibody tests, recommended reading and an extended list of questions reporters should be asking when reporting on antibody tests, check out our tip sheet.

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