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. 


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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‘People liked the silence’: How Berlin’s club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Berlin's clubs are suffering from staff shortages, a lack of guests... and neighbours who've grown used to the silence, representatives for the scene say.

'People liked the silence': How Berlin's club scene is struggling after lockdowns

Some operators from Berlin’s club scene are bracing themselves for a difficult autumn. For months now, people have been allowed to dance again and life has returned to normal in the dark corners of Berlin’s famous nightlife scene.

But the clubs have far from recovered from the pandemic. They face staff shortages, rising prices and the prospect of a return to Covid restrictions in the autumn.

“We go into the autumn with huge fear, because the omens are totally unfavorable,” said association head Pamela Schobeß.

Spring and summer went anything but smoothly, she said. “There has been an oversupply of events. People aren’t going out as much, and some are still afraid to move around indoors.”

Money is also an issue. “A lot of people are afraid of rising energy prices.”

The industry lost workers during the pandemic and it’s hard to convince them to come back with the outlook for the autumn looking so gloomy, Schobeß says.

Her colleague Robin Schellenberg tells a similar story. People have switched to various other jobs and would even rather work on a supermarket checkout, which may have been considered less sexy in the past. Now, he says, some have learned to love not having to work nights.


Schellenberg runs the Klunkerkranich, a small club on a parking garage deck in Neukölln. Because a number of things have become more expensive, they have also had to increase their admission prices.

His impression is that people are going out less often and are deciding more spontaneously. In addition, people in the neighborhood are now more sensitive to noise. “Many people found the silence very enticing,” he said.

Some in the industry wonder what will happen next. Will club admission have to become much more expensive? Will that exclude people who can no longer afford it? And what happens if Covid infection numbers rise sharply?

If masks become mandatory indoors in October, Schobeß believes that would be bad for the clubs. “Even if we don’t get shut down by the state, we’ll actually have to close down independently ourselves,” she reckons.

Masks take all the joy out of the experience, she says. People have drinks in their hands and are “jumping around and dancing” and then security guards have to tell them “please put your mask on.”

The federal government is considering whether states should be able to make masks mandatory indoors starting in October. Exceptions should be possible, such as at cultural and sporting events, for people who have been tested, recently vaccinated and recently recovered.

In the event that Covid numbers soar, the states could then be allowed to tighten the rules and eliminate all exemptions.

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