The number of confirmed coronavirus cases around the world is climbing towards 2 million, but many more may have the virus. That’s because a huge number of people may not be showing any symptoms at all. A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has suggested that as much as 78% of infected people may be asymptomatic. Their research is based on an analysis of collated data published daily by the Chinese authorities on the number of new coronavirus cases in the country.
It states that a total of 130 of 166 new infections (78%) identified in the 24 hours to the afternoon of 1st April were asymptomatic. Additionally, the 36 symptomatic cases involved arrivals from overseas, according to China’s National Health Commission. Tom Jefferson, an epidemiologist and Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) at the University of Oxford, said these details were very important. Even though the sample is small, even if they are 10% out, then this suggests the virus is everywhere, he told the BMJ. “If, and I stress if, the results are representative, then we have to ask, ‘What the hell are we locking down for?’’’, said Professor Jefferson.
Citing classified data, the South China Morning Post has reported China had already found more than 43,000 cases of asymptomatic infection through contact tracing. The hope is that eventually, large-scale antibody testing will be able to show how many people have already had COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they exhibited symptoms. This is because antibody tests, also known as serological tests, look for specific antibodies in a blood sample that the body has produced to fight the virus. COVID-19 is new and therefore an individual will not have antibodies specific to it if they have not been infected.
If the data are accurate and such vast amounts of people around the world are asymptomatic, the writers at the BMJ believe the lockdown currently enacted around the world is in vain. In an article on the website of the CEBM, Professor Jefferson and Carl Heneghan, Director of the CEBM, write: “There can be little doubt that COVID-19 may be far more widely distributed than some may believe. Lockdown is going to bankrupt all of us and our descendants and is unlikely at this point to slow or halt viral circulation as the genie is out of the bottle. What the current situation boils down to is this: is economic meltdown a price worth paying to halt or delay what is already amongst us?”
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The immunoassay testing device only requires a small amount of blood from a simple finger prick, to get results within 15 minutes. The qualitative test works by detecting both early and late marker antibodies. This means that it can also provide information about the stage of infection. Detection of immunoglobulin M (IgM) antibodies tends to indicate a recent or current exposure to COVID-19. Whereas, detection of immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies indicates a later stage or previous COVID-19 infection, up to 6 weeks prior.
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