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Germany ramps up antibody tests to determine coronavirus immunity

The sun is only just rising in Berlin but Lothar Kopp, 65, is already standing in line outside a clinic in the district of Reinickendorf.

Germany ramps up antibody tests to determine coronavirus immunity
Photo: DPA

Along with a handful of mask-clad people standing two metres apart, he is here to give a blood sample — for antibody tests in the hope of finding out if he has previously contracted the coronavirus and since developed immunity.

“If I've already had corona then I'm not infectious,” said Kopp, hoping to test positive for antibodies as it could allow him to visit his elderly mother without the risk of spreading the disease.

As nations around the world look to ease curbs on public life, some experts have mooted the possibility of so-called “immunity passports” to allow those who have antibodies to return to work first.

In Germany, tens of thousands of tests have been performed and large studies are ongoing.

Elsewhere in the world, efforts are also under way to determine the so-called level of immunity in the population.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week that the state will be launching tests “in the most aggressive way in the nation” to find out how many have already had the disease.

In a rush to catch up with testing, the US regulator had even taken the extraordinary decision to allow commercial manufacturers to market their tests without formal authorisation.

But experts including from the World Health Organization have urged caution over the accuracy of the nascent tests.

Among the unknowns of the virus is how long immunity could last — meaning that even positive antibody tests may not be meaningful for long. 

'Nonsense'

Urging prudence, a WHO spokeswoman noted that there is “much discussion” over the antibody tests.

But “once we have validated tests we may still not know how well a positive result correlates with protection against disease or for how long the protection will last,” she told AFP.

Matthias Orth, a board member of the Professional Association of German Laboratory Doctors (BDL), said inaccuracies are a big problem.

People can test negative even if they have had COVID-19, he said.

“There are also quite banal coronaviruses that do not cause serious illness, and they can give a positive result.”

As for so-called rapid antibody tests — home kits that extract blood from your finger and promise a result within 15 minutes — Orth's verdict: “They're nonsense.”

More accurate tests will come within weeks, he said, but he stressed that “it's a little too early to give patients a clear statement that they are definitely immune”.

70,000 tests

Experts also note that while large-scale studies underway across Europe's biggest economy can serve to determine what proportion of the population has been infected, they cannot say for sure how many people are actually immune given the limitations on current antibodies tests.

Nevertheless, the studies, including one that started in Munich over the weekend with scientists picking 3,000 households at random to test for antibodies, are being closely watched.

A separate study is ongoing in Gangelt, in the Heinsberg district — where Germany's first major cluster of infections was uncovered.

So far, researchers have determined that 14 percent of the population had previously been infected.

Beyond studies, several pharmaceutical companies in Germany have also begun marketing such antibody tests — which must be analysed in a laboratory.

And around 70,000 tests have so far been processed by 54 laboratories, according to the ALM association of accredited medical laboratories.

Doctor Ulrike Leimer-Lipke of the Reinickendorf clinic, which has been offering antibody tests since mid-March, said: “I think it makes a lot of sense, because this way we can find out if people have immunity.

“It is very important for people if they have a grandmother or a mother or father who they care for, to know if they are already immune.”

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COVID-19

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.

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