Italy launches antibody tests for virus immunity in hard-hit Lombardy

ROME (AFP) – Italy began conducting antibody tests in one northern region on yesterday seeking information about coronavirus immunity to help guide authorities as they reopen the long locked-down country.

Lombardy, the region hardest-hit by the coronavirus crisis in Europe’s worst-affected country, is betting that the science about “herd immunity” derived from the blood tests will help the prosperous industrial region return to work faster and safer.

Nearly 13,000 people have already died of the virus in densely populated Lombardy, whose capital is Milan – or more than half of Italy’s total dead. Although Germany has already started nation-wide antibody tests and countries such as Finland and Britain have announced plans to roll them out, many questions 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 they have been in contact with, as well as others with mild symptoms. Authorities hope to roll out the tests to the wider region after April 29.

The head of Italy’s National Health Council, Franco Locatelli, said last month 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.

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.