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Lombardy begins trialling coronavirus immunity blood tests

Italy began conducting antibody tests in one northern region on Thursday, seeking information about coronavirus immunity to help guide authorities in ending the lockdown.

Lombardy begins trialling coronavirus immunity blood tests
The blood tests are hoped to give more information abut how immunity to the coronavirus works. Photo: AFP

Lombardy, the region hardest-hit by the coronavirus crisis in Europe's worst-affected country, is hoping that data derived from the blood tests will help people in the prosperous industrial region return to work sooner.

READ ALSO: 'Phase two': Italian PM set to unveil lockdown exit strategy this week

Nearly 13,000 people have already died of the virus in Lombardy – more than half of Italy's total dead.

Although Germany has already started nationwide antibody tests, and countries such as Finland and Britain have announced plans to roll them out, many  doubts remain about how reliable data derived from the tests will be.

Health authorities have said 20,000 tests would be performed every day in Lombardy. First to be tested are those in the worst-hit provinces: health workers, those under quarantine showing coronavirus symptoms and those the have been in contact with, as well as others with mild symptoms.

Authorities hope to roll out the tests across the region after April 29.

The head of Italy's National Health Council, Franco Locatelli, said last month that antibody tests would help authorities determine the spread of the coronavirus.

Data would also provide “very relevant information on herd immunity” which would useful in developing strategies to help restart the country, he said, such as who could be allowed to go back to work.

Photo: AFP

The kits, made by Italian biotech firm DiaSorin, look for the presence of antibodies in the blood. Such antibodies indicate 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.

Lombardy's swab testing has revealed that 24 percent of those tested have the virus.

READ ALSO: Doctors in Lombardy doubt mass testing is the route out of lockdown

Immunity to the virus is little understood and hopes about its efficacy possibly exaggerated.

Lacking data, virologists and epidemiologists must extrapolate information from past coronaviruses, such as the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, to make predictions.

Experts believe at least 60 to 70 percent of a population would need to be immune to the virus in order to gradually wipe it out.

But recent studies, such as one conducted in March and April by France's Institut Pasteur, have found that so-called “herd immunity” was harder to attain than believed.

And it is not known for how long immunity to coronavirus lasts, meaning there is a risk those deemed “immune” may be re-infected and pass along the virus to others.


Milan, capital of the wealthy Lombardy region, is at a standstill with strict lockdown rules in place. Photo: AFP

“There's no guarantee that these antibodies protect from a new infection. We can only hope so for the moment. We'll know in the future,” Guido Marinoni, president of Bergamo's surgical and dental association, told AFP on Thursday.

Marinoni, who organised local testing in the hard-hit province of Bergamo and plans to study results, also cautioned that a lack of antibodies might mean the disease was still its early stages and antibodies had not kicked in yet.

Even more risky, a person who has developed antibodies can still carry traces of the virus, and be contagious. Therefore, experts such as Locatelli say antibody tests should be accompanied by swab testing.

Immunologist Jean-Francois Delfraissy, who heads France's scientific council formed to fight coronavirus, said many doubts remain.

“We're currently asking the question whether someone who has had COVID-19… is as protected as we think,” he said.

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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