Scientists ‘don’t know the foggiest’ whether surviving coronavirus gives immunity yet, expert warns

Top immunologist warns that scientists ‘don’t know the foggiest’ yet whether surviving coronavirus protects you from catching it again and says without mass testing ‘we’re flying blind’

  • Danny Altmann cautioned against lifting lockdown without immunity data
  •  He spoke to the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee today
  • It came as Boris Johnson mulls a blueprint to loosen strict social distancing rules
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Scientists currently ‘don’t know the foggiest’ whether surviving coronavirus protects people from catching it again, a top immunologist warned today. 

Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London told MPs he would be ‘terribly worried’ about lifting lockdown measures with no or limited knowledge of the population’s immunity against coronavirus.

Addressing a remote hearing of the Commons’ Science and Technology Committee said a better understanding of immunity in the population could help ease current restrictions on leaving the home.

It came as Boris Johnson mulls a blueprint to loosen the coronavirus lockdown that could let family and friends mix in ‘bubbles’ – as well as reopening more public services and urging more people to return to work as early as this weekend. 

But Prof Altmann suggested that scientists needed more time to identify whether people could gain immunity, saying immunologists like him were ‘obsessed’ with identifying tests and mother measurable ways to assess ‘whether the likelihood is this person would be protected the next time they met this bug’.

He added: ‘That’s the thing we need to know that we kind of don’t know the foggiest for this infection at the moment.

Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London told MPs he would be ‘terribly worried’ about lifting lockdown measures with no or limited knowledge of the population’s immunity against coronavirus.

Committee chairman Greg Clark asked: 'Is it surprising we don't know that compared to other viruses you have studied or is this a typical development of knowledge?'

Committee chairman Greg Clark asked: ‘Is it surprising we don’t know that compared to other viruses you have studied or is this a typical development of knowledge?’

‘If i had to guess I would say the amount of neutralising antibody you have on board might be a good proxy for that if you had to guess.’

HOW WILL THE UK USE ANTIBODY TESTING?  

Surveillance testing

Antibody testing is part of the fourth pillar of the Government’s testing scheme called surveillance, which began at the end of February.   

Blood samples are being collected by Public Health England to be analysed at their Porton Down science campus near Salisbury.

It uses a high accuracy antibody test operated by Public Health England to find out what proportion of the population have had the virus. 

The study will also give an idea of how many people with COVID-19 experience no or very few symptoms. This would help research into how much transmission is caused by asymptomatic cases.

Research on antibodies 

The Government is also conducting national mass population sampling over the coming months to research immunity to COVID-19.

The aim is to enrol 16,000 to 20,000 people who will undergo repeat testing using home kits. This roughly equates to one in 330,000 people.

Over the course of six months to a year the results will show whether or not the antibodies produced as a result of contracting COVID-19 give protection against the virus and for how long.

This is a grey area at the moment – scientists hope a person cannot be reinfected with the virus, but they can’t be certain until the know more about the immunity antibodies give.

Finding a home antibody test for the public

Giving an antibody test to the masses is the key to getting out of lockdown, scientists believe. 

Britons have also been promised a home antibody testing kit that they could buy from Amazon or Boots – on the condition on a commercial one would pass reliability tests by scientists at Oxford University. 

But the team of academics have yet to approve any,  meaning it could now be months before they are used in the UK, if at all. 

The tests were said to give ‘false positive’ results too often, meaning they incorrectly tells people they are immune. This might give people false confidence that they can’t catch the bug and put them at risk of infection. 

After being stung by the faulty Chinese antibody tests, the UK Government is said to now be looking for ‘home grown’ devices made by British firms. 

Committee chairman Greg Clark asked: ‘Is it surprising we don’t know that compared to other viruses you have studied or is this a typical development of knowledge?’

Prof Altmann replied: ‘No, It has been a very heroic and steep and rapid learning curve so we have probably learned faster about this in three months than in some other things in 30 years … people have done terribly well.’

But he said a better understanding of immunity in the population could help ease current restrictions on leaving the home.

He told the committee: ‘Without really good antibody testing and seroprevalence in the population, we’re flying blind.

‘We haven’t got a clue who’s had it, how many have had it, where they’ve had it, or where we stand for the future for second waves, so I can’t emphasise sufficiently how desperately we need that data and how widely we need that data.’

Britons could be allowed to choose 10 people they can socialise with in an easing of draconian restrictions that have split families over the past month, despite the risk that the outbreak could return.

Ministers are also looking at getting public services such as rubbish tips up and running in a matter of days, although sources stressed that they had never been formally ordered to close and it is a decision for local authorities.

Garden centres and other shops where social distancing can be most enforced could follow shortly afterwards, while ministers are also drawing up plans to bolster rail services as more of the nation’s workforce is encouraged to return. 

The government’s key ‘stay at home’ message is expected to be overhauled to make clear people should do their jobs wherever possible.

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at UCL, told the committee that the public’s adherence to social distancing measures had been better than anticipated.

She said: ‘I think it’s been phenomenal, I think it’s been more than most people expected, I think it’s a tribute to the British public.

‘Once people see the seriousness of the situation, and when there is an appeal to collective solidarity – which I think has been done very effectively – I think people rise to that occasion.

‘The messages that have been especially about protecting people, protecting the NHS have really had a big impact, there’s been a great degree of altruism which I think has been really heartwarming.’  

NHS cyber chief says it will be ‘tough’ to get enough people to download tracing app

The NHS faces a ‘tough’ task in getting 80 per cent of smartphone users to install a new contact-tracing app, the head of its technology arm said today.

Matthew Gould (below), chief executive of NHSX, told the Science and Technology Committee encouraging people to do so needed to become part of the Government’s ‘core message’ in limiting the spread of the virus.

The app, which uses location data to warn the vulnerable when they are near others who have had coronavirus, could be ready to be rolled out within a fortnight, he added.

‘As the country looks to reduce the restrictions it’s under at the moment, as the Government faces these difficult choices, the way we can manage that safely is being confident we can rapidly detect and isolate people who have recently come into contact with new Covid cases,’ he said.

‘The message needs to be: if you want to keep your family and yourselves safe, if you want to protect the NHS and stop it being overwhelmed and at the same time we want get the country back and get the economy moving, the app is going to be an essential part of the strategy for doing that.’

He added: ‘To be blunt about it, the levels of download mentioned will be tough, it will require us to really get the message over that this is a core part of how we move forward.

‘It will require us to earn and keep the trust of the people that we are doing this in the right way.’

He moved to assure MPs that  the public can be ‘confident’ their personal data will not be compromised.

He said smartphones will keep an anonymous record of people they have been in close proximity to, and can share that data should they develop signs of having contracted Covid-19.

He said: ‘What we have is identifiers rather than identities, which sit on people’s phones until they choose to share it with us.

‘So there are a series of protections that allow people to be confident in using it that their privacy is being protected.’

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