'No evidence' people are immune to coronavirus if they have already had it

There is currently ‘no evidence’ that people who have recovered from coronavirus are then immune to the virus, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

Despite governments worldwide pinning hopes on antibody tests, there is no proof that those who have been infected cannot be infected again, according to senior WHO epidemiologists.

Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, Dr Maria van Kerkhove said: ‘There are a lot of countries that are suggesting using rapid diagnostic serological tests [showing antibody levels] to be able to capture what they think will be a measure of immunity. Right now, we have no evidence that the use of a serological test can show that an individual has immunity or is protected from reinfection.’

She added: ‘These antibody tests will be able to measure that level of seroprevalence – that level of antibodies – but that does not mean that somebody with antibodies means that they are immune.’

The British Government has bought 3.5 million serology tests, which measure levels of antibodies in blood. But the WHO has told countries to be cautious about investing in the tests.

Many tests being developed are pin prick blood tests, similar to widely used instant HIV tests, and measure for raised levels of the antibodies the body uses to fight the virus – despite raised levels not yet proving immunity.

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Dr van Kerkhove said it was ‘a good thing’ that so many tests are being developed. But she cautioned: ‘We need to ensure that they are validated so that we know what they say they attempt to measure they are actually measuring.’

Her colleague Dr Michael Ryan said the antibody tests also raised ethical questions.

He said: ‘There are serious ethical issues around the use of such an approach and we need to address it very carefully, we also need to look at the length of protection that antibodies might give.

‘You might have someone who believes they are seropositive (have been infected) and protected in a situation where they may be exposed and in fact they are susceptible to the disease.’

Dr Ryan said the tests had to be used as part of a coherent public health policy.

The WHO is due to issue updated guidance on the issue this weekend.

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