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.