The "immunity certificates" have become the hope to get out of quarantine quickly: this is what we know about them

Back to normal. As soon as possible and with as few victims as possible. Once the coronavirus has spread its tentacles across the five continents and the epidemic is forcing us to take measures never seen in recent history, this "return to everyday life" has become the fundamental objective of all countries in the world .

There is no lack of options and theories. But, among the many approaches being discussed, there is one that stands out: the "immunity certificates" so that those who have antibodies can get out of confinement and reactivate the economy. Only in the last few days, in Germany, work has already started on a seroepidemiological survey that allows knowing the real impact of the epidemic and, incidentally, identifying those already infected.

On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has already expressed his intention to carry out massive blood tests to find those who have already overcome the disease. But is this possible? Its viable? Why is it not already being implemented as a measure to avoid the total closure of the economy of the affected countries?

The race to find the test we lack

Vincent Ghilione

Indeed, the approach of locating those who have already developed immunity makes sense and may be key for societies to return to normal more quickly. In fact, the main reason why such a program has not been started in any country in the world is simply because we do not yet have the technical means to do so safely.

As we have explained on several occasions, to diagnose COVID-19 we already have two fundamental systems: PCR (the molecular tests that can detect the genetic material of the virus in the body and that have been extremely useful for diagnosing acute infection) and rapid tests (immunochromatographic tests that use the proteins produced by the virus to detect it very quickly).

However, we lack some basic tests: serological tests capable of identifying the antibodies that remain in the blood after virus infection. Dozens of laboratories, universities and research centers are working on it (and there are some very promising proposals), but it is more complicated than it seems. It is not difficult to do one of these tests in a laboratory, the complex thing is to create a system to take it to hospitals and clinics around the world.

It is not because there are problems to differentiate the SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from the rest of the coronaviruses that live among us; is that currently we are not even sure yet that the virus generates immunity in the medium-long term. Preliminary studies suggest that it does, but the risk of reopening a country based on weak evidence is too high to cheerfully launch.

So the first moves (such as the alleged 3.5 million tests in the UK) have been met with some skepticism by researchers. However, this does not prevent, as we see, that the issue of "immunity certificates" is on the table. In the end, its introduction (or not) will not depend so much on political will as on the effectiveness of other strategies; that is, whether epidemiological and social distance barriers manage to control the epidemic before massive serological tests are available to those who want to use them.

Image | Robert Norton

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