Discussion: What role will antibodies have in a future immunity to the coronavirus?

The World
Updated on

As countries around the world gingerly ease COVID-19 lockdowns, many governments are scrambling to buy antibody tests to find out how many of their citizens were infected, in the hopes that it will help them craft strategies to avoid a second wave of the coronavirus.

But exactly how — or even if — the information will be of use remains unclear, raising the risk that public funds and government time are being wasted.

Switzerland, home of diagnostics powerhouse Roche, which has developed its own COVID-19 antibody test, is one of the countries holding back from the dash to place orders.

"The government up to now has not bought any antibody tests," a Federal Health Ministry spokesman told Reuters on Thursday.

"Their ability to inform us remains simply too uncertain for them to be part of an easing strategy," he said, referring to the relaxation of restrictions, such as on free movement.

That hasn't stopped makers of antibody tests including Roche, US rival Abbott, Germany's Siemens Healthineers, as well as Chinese suppliers, from receiving a flurry of orders and expressions of interest from governments.

Related discussion: What are the potential vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus?

On Thursday, Britain announced it was talking to Roche about getting hundreds of thousands of its tests per week, describing them as a potential "game changer."

That's after Germany said last week the Swiss drugmaker would sell it 3 million tests in May and 5 million a month thereafter.

With testing for COVID-19 continuing to lag in the US, the extent to which the pandemic has spread in the country remains elusive.

Many scientists are researching antibody tests for their potential to help health care professionals, government officials and the public as society begins to reopen. However, questions have emerged regarding the accuracy of the tests and what factor antibodies will play in a future immunity to the coronavirus.

As part of our weekly discussion series taking your questions to the experts, The World's Jonathan Dyer moderated a conversation with Dr. Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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