Djokovic row: ‘Antibody tests could replace proof of jabs at national borders and sports tournaments’
Could antibody tests, rather than proof of vaccination, be used as the basis of admitting people into countries and events? Leading testing expert Dr Quinton Fivelman questions whether a simple check for Covid antibodies could end unseemly disputes about vaccinations and proof of past infections. The row over tennis star Novak Djokovic’s visa and entry into the Australian Open reflects badly on everyone involved, says Fivelman, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory. He believes it may be worth thinking about simple antibody tests to provide proof of vaccination or immunity at borders and for entry to events such as sports competitions.
The reason why countries and organisations ask for proof of vaccination or of recent infection is to establish whether an individual might be likely to develop Covid and spread it within a community or event. However, not only can this lead to embarrassing international headlines, but it is also a false premise. Proof of vaccination is far less effective at indicating if a person might introduce Covid to a country or competition than a simple 5-minute antibody test, especially if there is significant time since their last jab.
Antibody tests are an excellent indicator of the likelihood of someone developing Covid. Extensive research has shown that the more Covid-19 antibodies a person has, the more protection they have from the virus over time and the less likely they are to be infected or re-infected with the virus.
In the case of Djokovic, even though he has gone on record as saying he “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine”, he may not be a present danger to other players or the wider Australian public if he did have Covid-19 during December, as he claims. An antibody test will establish if he has sufficient antibodies to provide resistance to catching Covid-19 and potentially transmitting it over the next few weeks.
We all have our own opinions of whether people should be inoculated and, indeed, I certainly believe everyone should. However, antibody testing bypasses ideological disputes by establishing whether a person is likely to catch Covid-19 and then, possibly, transmit it in the near future.
Why can’t we use this as a basic criteria for admitting someone into a country, a sporting competition, or any other kind of large group event? The Australian Government, Tennis Australia and Mr Djokovic have all played their part in escalating what should be a simple black and white question: could Djokovic potentially develop and then spread Covid at the event?
Rather than complicated red tape and political grandstanding, antibody tests are a straightforward and impartial way to establish if someone is fit to enter a country or a competition.
Of course, no system is without controversy. A few individuals may not have developed sufficient antibodies, despite having a booster jab. Our lab tests are still seeing 17% of people showing Covid antibody levels lower than 50AU/ml, which is classified negative; 2.5% have absolutely no Covid antibodies at all. Some of those people have not responded to their inoculations and will need further medical help to ensure they remain safe during the pandemic. Studies have shown that one out of a hundred fully vaccinated people do not produce any antibodies at all after receiving Covid-19 vaccines.
Everyone’s immune system is different and complex, involving many different types of cells and biological interactions. Our antibody testing has shown everyone responds differently to vaccinations. Some people create a very effective immune response, while others fail to do so. Vaccines can also give people a false sense of security.
However, antibody testing is still an excellent way to determine the potential danger any individual poses by becoming infected and spreading Covid to other people. That’s because it is based on science – not bureaucracy, politics or individual beliefs.