ROME — Serological testing aimed at charting the extent of the spread of coronavirus in Italy is going slower than expected, officials told Xinhua, though the information it is providing is still “essential.”
In late May Italy began a national pilot test of at least 150,000 individuals to determine the prevalence of the coronavirus antibody in the population.
But Italian Red Cross officials told Xinhua that fewer than one in four Italians asked to provide blood to be tested for potential exposure to the virus gave their immediate permission. Though the Red Cross did not say what acceptance rate they expected, the organization did say the rate was lower than their models predicted.
“We expected more citizens to participate,” Rosario Valastro, vice president of the Italian Red Cross, said in an emailed statement. Of the estimated 150,000 calls made so far, just 24 percent resulted in an immediate agreement to be tested.
Valastro said around 13 percent agreed to reconsider their decision, while nearly two-thirds — a total of 63 percent — declined to respond at all.
Valastro said the testing, which had been scheduled to wrap up by mid-June, would now be extended to at least the end of the month.
The government is not the only entity supporting such testing. Local governments, organizations, and companies — from individual regions and trade unions representing healthcare workers to private companies such as carmaker Fiat-Chrysler and multinational tire manufacturer Pirelli — have funded their own testing regimens.
Health officials in the northern Italian city of Bergamo, one of the those hardest hit by the pandemic, said this week that 57 percent of the nearly 10,000 residents tested showed the presence of the coronavirus antibody, meaning they had come into contact with the virus at some point.
Researchers have said those with coronavirus antibodies in their systems could be immune to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or could at least have heightened resistance to the disease.
According to Fabrizio Pregliasco, a researcher at the Department of Biomedical Sciences for Health at the University of Milan, the testing plays an essential role in the government’s policymaking going forward.
“Slowing the spread of an outbreak like the coronavirus is a complex matter,” Pregliasco said in an interview. “There are antibodies that show up immediately after infections and others that show up 14 days later. No information set is perfect, and there is always a margin for error. But this kind of data is essential to understand how the virus spread and what parts of the population may still be vulnerable.”
Pregliasco said serological testing at the San Donato Hospital in Milan, where he works, found that 11 percent of employees showed signs of having been exposed to the coronavirus, even if some of them never showed COVID-19 symptoms.
Most data associated with the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy — the infection rate, the mortality rate, and patients in intensive care units — has been trending in a positive direction since early May, when the government first began easing lockdown measures in place since early March.
The government is planning further loosening of lockdown rules in the coming weeks, including the reopening of cinemas and concert halls, a restart to the professional football season, and the removal of travel restrictions for visitors arriving in Italy from beyond Europe. Italian Red Cross officials including Pregliasco, and others said testing data will help guide that reopening process and guard against a reversal of the recent coronavirus trends.