The WHO said only 2% to 3% of people tested have COVID-19 antibodies, suggesting that 'immunity passports' may not be an effective policy

Omar Marques/Getty ImagesA health worker extracts blood to perform an antibody test for COVID-19 at Dworska Hospital, in Krakow, Poland, on April 9, 2020.
  • The WHO director-general on Monday said that data suggests no more than 2% to 3% of the population have the antibodies to show they were infected by the coronavirus.
  • These antibodies are needed to have immunity to the coronavirus before a vaccine is developed.
  • A second WHO expert said the figure is less than expected, and undermines plans to create “immunity passports” as a route back to normal life.
  • The WHO has also warned there’s no evidence the coronavirus antibodies offer long-term immunity and that not all people who recover have the antibodies.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The head of the World Health Organisation on Monday said that likely no more than 2% to 3% of the global population have developed antibodies for COVID-19.

That is a problem for countries hoping to issue “immunity passports” as a way to get back to normal, even before a coronavirus vaccine has been developed.

A second WHO expert said the data does not yet support such a strategy, not least because it is not clear whether those who recover from COVID-19 are in fact immune.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, gave the 2%-to-3% ballpark at a press conference on Monday, citing studies from around the world that the WHO has supported. He did not give details.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.Fabrice COFFRINI/Getty ImagesWHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said that the figure was lower than expected, according to the Guardian.

She also cast doubt on countries where officials are exploring ideas of offering “immunity passports” to those who are carrying antibodies. These countries include the US,UK, Germany, and Italy.

Chile has already endorsed the idea and said this week it would issue them to some recovered people.

Of that idea, Van Kerkhove said: “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.” Serological tests are those which test the blood for antibodies.

The presence of antibodies typically makes a person immune to reinfection for at least a while. But it is not yet clear what kind of protection is afforded by COVID-19 antibodies.

Some are optimistic. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious-disease expert, has previously said he was “willing to bet anything that people who recover are really protected against reinfection.”

France coronavirusLUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty ImageTourists in protective face masks in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris, on March 17, 2020, a few hours before the order of staying at home to all French citizens comes into effect, to avoid the spreading of the novel coronavirus.

Some experts also hope antibodies from recovered patients could help treat other people with COVID-19.

Tedros did not dismiss antibody tests entirely, but said they should be part of a broader response to the pandemic, alongside the more widespread tests to see whether a person was actively infected.

He said the WHO still welcomed the rollout of antibody tests, which he said would help scientists “understand the extent of infection in the population.”

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