Italy begins mass COVID-19 antibody testing in Lombardy

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Updated 24 April 2020

Italy begins mass COVID-19 antibody testing in Lombardy

  • Human testing of a coronavirus vaccine will start in Italy this summer

ROME: With the number of new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases detected in Italy — Europe’s most-affected country — steadily decreasing, mass antibody testing has begun in Lombardy, the northern region hit hardest by the pandemic. Health authorities believe that the tests will offer insights into COVID-19 immunity and guidance for the government, which is expected to begin easing the national lockdown from May 4.

Human testing of a coronavirus vaccine will start in Italy this summer, a consortium of ReiThera, based in Pomezia south of Rome, Munich-based Leukocare, and Univercells of Brussels announced on Thursday. “Currently ReiThera is carrying out preparatory activities to start clinical testing in Italy during the summer of 2020,” the consortium said. “Large-scale production will be started immediately afterwards.”

Regional Commissioner Giulio Gallera announced that 20,000 antibody tests will be carried out daily in Lombardy. The first tests will be performed in the worst-hit provinces on health workers, those under quarantine showing coronavirus symptoms and those they have been in contact with, and those with mild symptoms. Authorities hope to roll out the tests to the wider region after April 29.

“We are betting that the science about herd immunity derived from the blood tests will help the prosperous industrial region return to work faster and safer,” Gallera said in a press conference.

There have been nearly 13,000 COVID-19-related deaths in densely populated Lombardy — the richest region of Italy. That is more than 50 percent of the country’s total deaths from the virus. The government has had to allow governors in Lombardy and Veneto to ignore current cemetery limits.

Although Germany has already started nationwide antibody testing and countries including Finland and Britain have announced plans to roll it out, many questions remain about how reliable data derived from the tests will be. Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s National Health Council, explained that antibody tests will help authorities determine the spread of COVID-19 and provide “very relevant information on herd immunity,” which will help develop strategies to help restart the country, such as who will be allowed to return to work.  

The test kits, made by Italian biotech firm DiaSorin, detect the presence of antibodies in the blood indicating that the person has been exposed to the virus, pointing to some level of immunity. They differ from the more-common swab tests, which test molecules from nasal secretions to determine whether a person currently has the virus. Swab testing in Lombardy has so far revealed that 24 percent of those tested have the virus.

There is little information currently available about immunity to COVID-19, and some virologists have said that hopes about its efficacy may be misplaced. Experts believe at least 60 to 70 percent of a population must be immune to a virus in order to gradually wipe it out, but recent studies — including one conducted in March and April by France’s Institut Pasteur — have revealed that herd immunity is harder to attain than was previously believed.

“There’s no guarantee that these antibodies are able to protect from a new infection. We can only hope so for the moment. We’ll know in the future,” Professor Massimo Galli, director of infectious diseases at Hospital Sacco in Milan (the capital of Lombardy), told Arab News.

Locatelli believes antibody tests should be accompanied by swab testing. But the local authorities in Lombardy are confident that tests will speed up the process of reopening the region, and Italy in general.

“The tests offer some certainty today and could give us more tomorrow,” Giorgio Gori, mayor of the town of Bergamo, one of the major centers of the outbreak, told SkyTG24 television.

“We were all outraged,” says Arab owner of store at center of US protest firestorm

Updated 31 May 2020

“We were all outraged,” says Arab owner of store at center of US protest firestorm

  • Troops can go in ’very quickly,’ Trump says

CHICAGO: The firestorm of protest, arson and looting that has consumed the US for five days began at the counter of an Arab American grocery store.

Staff working for Mahmoud Abumayyaleh, the owner of Cup Foods, called Minneapolis police after George Floyd, 46, twice tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill to make a purchase.

Officers who arrested Floyd held him to the ground with a knee on his neck, as he pleaded that he could not breathe. He lost consciousness and died later in hospital. One officer has been charged with third-degree murder and further charges are expected.

“What took place outside … was not in our hands,” Abumayyaleh told US TV. “The murder and execution was something done by the police, and it was an abuse of power. The police brutality needs to stop.”

Abumayyaleh said he knew Floyd as a customer, and as someone who was always pleasant. He did not find out until the following morning that the man had died. “We were all outraged,” he said, and Floyd “may not have even known that the bill was counterfeit.”

The store owner and his sons, Samir, Adam and Mahmoud, have gone into hiding in the face of a wave of threats against them on social media. They took down their store’s Facebook page and its landline phone has been disconnected.

Minneapolis has more than 50 Arab- and Muslim-owned stores mostly north of where the incident occurred, all operating under statewide COVID-19 restrictions. Arab store owners said they feared speaking out publicly about the incident.

An unidentified man who answered the phone at one Arab-owned store told Arab News that both the killing of Floyd and vandalism against businesses “is wrong.”

Since Floyd died last Tuesday, protesters have vandalized, looted and burned down more than 200 stores in Minneapolis. On Friday and Saturday, the violence spread to New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte North Carolina.

In Minnesota, protesters maintained a daily vigil in front of the Cup Foods store at 3759 Chicago Avenue, painting walls and the street with murals and graffiti in memory of Floyd. After four nights of confrontations in the city, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz activated the state’s national guard on Saturday for the first time since the Second World War.

US President Donald Trump said troops could be deployed if local authorities requested their help. “We could have our military there very quickly,” he said.