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Govt plans to screen entire community with antibody test

The Gibraltar Government has ordered 35,000 antibody tests as part of plans to mass test the entire community, in a broad initiative that will shed light on how exposed Gibraltar has been to Covid-19. 

The results will also help feed in to the global understanding of the virus, Acting Medical Director Dr Krishna Rawal said yesterday from No.6 Convent Place.

“It is part of our management strategy going forward and it will be used to see what we can understand not only about our population and our community and how immune we are but also to contribute to the global understanding of this virus,” he said. 

“Our aim is to offer antibody testing to the whole of Gibraltar,” Dr Rawal said, as he acknowledged that a “country-wide” study like this will be a world first.  

Antibody tests, rather than detecting the virus itself, look for antibodies within the blood that the body produces to fight off the infection. 

They indicate whether a person has had the virus and recovered from, and are important because in most cases, people with Covid-19 suffer only mild symptoms that often go unnoticed.

The test to be used in Gibraltar has been produced by Abbott Laboratories and an initial batch of 35,000 tests is expected to arrive on the rock in the coming weeks. 

Up to 500 people could be tested per day, Dr Rawal said, even as he acknowledged that taking that many blood samples daily would represent an “enormous project”. 

Additionally, Dr Rawal explained that testing on this scale could put an end to speculation that the virus may have arrived in Europe almost a month earlier than previously thought. 

He said: “Many people think that they’ve had this infection back as far as Christmas, maybe even just before…it is very possible and whether we get a conclusion from these tests that there’s a low level in the community or a high level - which perhaps is only short-lived  - we will find out.” 

“But it will be very useful even to understand what’s happened to us as a community over the last three or four months,” he added. 

Some governments have suggested that the detection of antibodies could be the platform for an ‘immunity passport’, even though the World Health Organisation has warned that the detection of antibodies should not serve as the basis for this concept. 

The idea behind ‘immunity passports’ is that those who have recovered from Covid-19 may present less of a risk than others, but the idea has provoked controversy because it could differentiate unfairly between people.

Those who have followed public health advice scrupulously and avoided the virus, for example, could potentially be placed at a disadvantage.

Asked by the media if the Gibraltar Government was considering such a step, Dr Rawal confirmed that it had been discussed, but underscored that the issue came down to a matter of ethics. 

The tests involve taking a blood sample and require consent from individuals, but the aim is to understand the impact of Covid-19 on the community as a whole.

“I’m sure most people will be more than happy to understand whether they have or haven’t had the infection and where we sit as a community in our resistance,” he said. 

“I think we have to be very careful how we understand [immunity passports] because if you have somebody who has a health passport, what does that actually mean?” 

“Does that gain you access to some places more than others, which of course would clearly not be fair?”

“I think that would have to go to the ethics committee to discuss it properly and really understand why we are doing the antibody testing.” 

“My feeling is that we’re doing antibody testing to understand [our exposure to Covid-19] as a community and our resistance going forward, and not necessarily us as individuals.”