As many single people know, searching for love can be a challenge even in the best of times. But looking for it online during a global pandemic is something truly complex—and involves some tricky new dangers. Though some speculative swiping on dating apps has continued throughout quarantines and semi-lockdowns in the U.S., single people are reporting that in-person dating had basically frozen to a standstill until recent months. As cases surge again, many wonder whether it is safe to even consider meeting new people in any social context—let alone potential sexual partners.
Some online daters have adapted to the new normal and proudly declare on their profiles that they are “COVID-antibody-positive,” apparently implying they have already had the virus and are now in the clear to freely comingle. The COVID-19 pandemic is still solidly entrenched around the globe, with no immediately available vaccine or cure. Does an antibody-positive test result translate to a pandemic dating hall pass?
“The data is clear that we don’t know what is clear,” says Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Even though antibody tests help determine whether someone has previously been infected with the virus, that information may not be helpful in the dating realm. “There are a variety of tests, so just stating you’re ‘antibody-positive’ doesn’t provide evidence that equips someone to discern whether the test is [Food and Drug Administration–validated] or specific to COVID. And we don’t know how long antibodies from natural infections last. We’re already starting to see reinfections emerge. Even if someone got a positive test result X time ago, that doesn't mean they’re currently protected. It’s not a passport to sexual freedom.”
A case study published in the Lancet Infectious Disease Journal in October described two instances of infection with SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19) in the same individual, a 25-year-old Nevada man who experienced more severe symptoms during his second bout. The authors concluded that “all individuals, whether previously diagnosed with COVID-19 or not, should take identical precautions to avoid infection with SARS-CoV-2.” There have been at least four other confirmed reinfection cases, one each in Hong Kong, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ecuador. Researchers from Imperial College London recently found that the COVID-19 antibody response wanes over time. “It remains unclear what level of immunity antibodies provide,” they concluded, “or for how long this immunity lasts.” And of course, questions around antibodies apply to all social situations, not just online dating. That means upcoming holiday gatherings, weddings, parties and even just casual hangouts with friends are rife with uncertainty.
Dana (not her real name), a 38-year-old Tinder user in Portland, Ore., says she has encountered plenty of COVID-related content peppering the profiles of potential partners. “I’ve seen the occasional ‘COVID-free’ disclaimer in bios, which—like with STI status, how can anyone 100 percent trust [that]?” she says, referring to the practice of disclosing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in dating profiles in the spirit of full transparency. But even though some parallels can be drawn between STIs and COVID (because both can have implications for partners’ health), experts are quick to point out that the two categories are not equivalent.
“With HIV, for example, the antibody test is pretty durable, and we know what it means,” Chin-Hong says. “People use it on the apps for similar reasons, but it has a completely different meaning. With the COVID antibody test, people are intending to show that they’re ‘protected.’ But that’s not how antibodies work.”
Antibodies are Y-shaped proteins that bind to viruses or other invaders in the body and trigger the immune system to destroy the harmful intruders. “Antibodies are the soldiers. I think of them as a viral stun gun that neutralizes a virus,” Chin-Hong says. “You can get them artificially by having them infused. Or if you get the virus, you can develop them to protect you if you’re exposed again.” The issue, however, is that science does not yet know enough specifically about COVID-19 antibodies to be certain whether a positive test result actually indicates immunity.
Humans had never identified the novel coronavirus before this pandemic, and there are still plenty of unknowns surrounding the variability of its impact on our health. Some infected individuals produce high-quality antibodies that efficiently and accurately identify and eliminate the virus. Others produce weaker ones that afford partial protection. And some produce none at all. The current antibody tests do not account for that variability, making it impossible to know what level of immunity a person has (if any) or how long it may last.
According to physician James Zehnder, director of clinical pathology at Stanford Medicine, the inherent uncertainty of COVID-19 antibody testing makes it an unreliable method for screening dates. “Not everyone who has COVID has an antibody response,” he says. “There are some false positive tests, and it’s not clear for how long or how effectively these antibodies are protective.” Zehnder says the best current test for excluding SARS-CoV-2 infection is a system called viral reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) , but even with that approach, false negatives are within the realm of possibility.
Charlie, a 37-year-old Grindr user in Brighton, England, who asked to be identified only by his first name, says he deleted the app early on in the pandemic but has slowly started swiping again. “I had a couple of guys try to convince me that they'd already had COVID and have the antibodies, and used it like a hall pass for sex during the pandemic.”
Dana says she has encountered straightforward dismissal of COVID-19 safety precautions. “The overwhelming direct message I get from guys is, essentially ‘The world is on fire. Let’s throw caution to the wind and have sex as soon as possible,’” she says. “We’re carnal beings. I don’t deny that. But it’s preposterous to me that in the middle of a global pandemic, some folks truly believe their handful of photos and a single sentence of noninfo is enticing enough for a girl to put her health at risk. Come on, gents, at least try and make us laugh first.”
Chin-Hong says he understands the impulse to comment on antibody testing in the context of a dating profile. “Existentially, it says, ‘I care about COVID, and I want to display that I took time out of my day to get tested and to show you that I’m willing to go the extra mile to engage with you,’” he says. “And it also says, ‘I’m lonely, and I want to take things to the next level, and I’m done with FaceTime and being socially distant.’”
Camille (not her real name), a 30-year-old from California’s Orange County, says she has encountered plenty of COVID-related remarks on the dating apps Hinge and Coffee Meets Bagel. When she matched with a hospital worker who expressed serious concern about the virus, she felt an in-person meeting could be a reality. “We started chatting and then met a few times over video calls until we both felt comfortable meeting up for coffee safely and socially distanced,” she says. But then Camille’s would-be date contracted COVID-19. He was eager to reschedule, even before receiving a negative test result. “I was still uncomfortable and asked that we wait. He didn't take that very well,” she says. “He expressed that he didn’t have to share that he had COVID at all, which, to me, was terrifying—that there are probably people out there on dating apps, with COVID, not being considerate of who they’re meeting.”
After months of uncertainty, many people are still grappling with COVID-related questions, such as whether a person who currently has active antibodies can still transmit the virus to someone who does not. According to Chin-Hong, this is one scenario we may not need to obsess over. “It’s unlikely that an antibody-positive person will be able to efficiently transmit SARS-CoV-2 to an uninfected partner in general,” Chin-Hong says. “There is a theoretical risk that an antibody-positive person could act as a large surface—like a doorknob, you touch them and then touch your nose or mouth and theoretically get infected. But that’s unlikely, as it’s not the best transmission route.”
So what are singles to do in this atypical time? “My advice would be to take time to get to know someone before you meet in person,” says Melissa Cushing, director of transfusion medicine and vice chair of laboratory medicine at New York–Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine. “Make sure you understand the COVID risks they take in their everyday life (not wearing a mask or avoiding large gatherings, et cetera) because their risks will become your risks. You should be comfortable with how they are handling COVID. A single laboratory test result will be much less important than everyday behaviors.”
In an attempt to alleviate some of the uncertainty-fueled pressure, apps are offering new digital dating options such as Bumble’s "virtual dating tools.” And Tinder recently launched “Face to Face,” a new video chat feature. The app also consulted with Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, to develop what Tinder calls “5 tips for getting back to IRL dating.” In addition to advocating mask wearing and social distancing during in-person meetups, Pitts encourages Tinder users to “get tested if you can but remember, even if you have antibodies, to always practice good health and hygiene. It is not yet clear that antibodies protect you or make you less of a carrier.”
Forty-year-old San Francisco resident Teresa (not her real name) has been using dating apps throughout the pandemic and says she is settling into the new normal of single life in the COVID era. “I’m going to keep dating,” she says. “I’m a responsible person, and I’m dating responsibly. You never know if someone is telling the truth anyway, so all you can do is take precautions and trust your gut.”