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HEALTH

International interest grows in Switzerland’s ‘game-changing’ coronavirus antibody test

Britain on Thursday said it was in discussions with Swiss pharma giant Roche to mass purchase its coronavirus antibody test after scientists found it to be "100 percent" accurate.

International interest grows in Switzerland’s 'game-changing' coronavirus antibody test
(Illustration) Antibody tests at a joint Swiss-Italian facility in northern Italy. Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

“This test developed by Roche appears to be extremely reliable, it's got the green light from testers,” health minister Edward Argar told the BBC on Thursday.

“We are currently in discussions with Roche about that. We are very keen to get that test on stream as swiftly as we can,” he added, calling it a potential “game-changer”.

READ: What you need to know about Switzerland's coronavirus testing regime 

The antibody tests detect whether someone has had coronavirus at any point in the past, meaning they are almost certainly immune, according to the current scientific consensus.

Britain has had more than 36,000 deaths in the outbreak — the second-worst in the world — but has partially lifted lockdown measures in England this week.

The government has been accused of putting workers' lives at risk by easing restrictions while the daily death toll is still hovering around 500.

READ: Swiss researchers develop 'coronavirus passports' to show immunity 

But ministers and scientists are banking on a reliable antibody test to give people the confidence to go back to work.

Scientists at Public Health England's (PHE) research laboratory at Porton Down in southern England gave approval to the test last week after finding it 100 percent accurate.

The Daily Telegraph said Roche was ready to provide “hundreds of thousands of laboratory-based tests” to Britain's health service each week.

A government source was quoted as saying: “We want to get our hands on as many of these as possible.”

The national coordinator of the UK Coronavirus Testing Programme, Professor John Newton confirmed PHE Porton Down evaluated the SARS-CoV-2 serology assay.

They concluded “it is a highly specific assay with specificity of 100 percent”, he added.

“This is a very positive development, because such a highly specific antibody test is a very reliable marker of past infection,” Newton said.

“This in turn may indicate some immunity to future infection, although the extent to which the presence of antibodies indicates immunity remains unclear.”

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HEALTH

Reader question: Are Brits in Switzerland still banned from donating blood?

For many years, people coming from the United Kingdom were banned from donating their blood in Switzerland. This is what the situation is right now.

Reader question: Are Brits in Switzerland still banned from donating blood?

The ‘blood ban’ that extended to British citizens or those of any nationality who had lived in the UK (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), was implemented for safety purposes.

The reason was the so-called mad cow disease (BSE), which was particularly rampant in Great Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

Many people contracted and even died from the cattle-borne condition known scientifically as Creutzfeld-Jakob disease.

It is believed that one in 2,000 people in the UK is a carrier of the disease. 

While most of them got BSE from eating contaminated beef, “experience tells us that the disease could be transmitted from human to human via blood”, according to a BBC report.

As a result, a number of governments, including the Swiss, prohibited people from the UK to donate blood.

However, this rule is no longer in force in Switzerland.

According to Geneva’s university hospital (HUG), which is a member of the national blood transfusion network Blutspende and follows the same rules, only people who had lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996 for more than six months at a stretch still can’t donate blood.

This is a period when the BSE outbreak was at its worst in the UK.

If you had lived in Great Britain prior to or after that date, you can safely donate your blood.

Have there been any BSE cases in Switzerland?

About 465 cases had been reported in Switzerland between 1990 and 2020, with less than 20 deaths.

There are still isolated cases of BSE throughout Europe, but they are no longer a cause for as much concern as previously.

Can everyone donate blood in Switzerland?

Gay men are still not allowed to do so.

Under Swiss law, any man who has had sex with another man is prevented from donating blood for 12 months — the legislation was introduced during the the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, while the 12-month rule was introduced in 2017.

However, in March 2020, the National Council’s Commission for Social Security and Health said the rule was “no longer appropriate” and filed a motion to rescind it. 

READ MORE: Switzerland to clear way for gay and bisexual men to donate blood

Who else is prevented from donating blood?

According to Blutspende, these medical and other conditions disqualify people from donating blood in Switzerland:

  • Positive test for HIV (AIDS), syphilis, hepatitis C and hepatitis B
  • Prostitution
  • Past or present drug use by injection
  • Blood transfusion after 01.01.1980

These reasons could be a cause for deferral though not an outright ban:

  • Stay during the past six months in a region where malaria is endemic, without any health problem (in case of illness with fever, tell the doctor at the blood donation centre).
  • Suffering from a sexually transmitted disease during the past 12 months
  • Change of sexual partner during the past four months
  • Sexual intercourse with multiple partners during the past 12 months
  • Stay of six months or longer in the past 12 months in countries with a high HIV-prevalence

More information about blood donation in Switzerland can be found here.

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