A study aimed at determining how many people have contracted Covid-19 in Ireland will be conducted by Dr. Cillian De Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD. 5000 people will be asked to participate from Sligo and Dublin, the areas with the lowest and highest levels of Covid-19 transmission respectively. 

According to Dr. De Gascun, participants will be randomly selected. He informed NewsTalk, “The reason we want to take a random selection is because we want it to be representative of the population at large on the basis of gender, age and ethnicity and that is why we have not asked for volunteers”.

Those who agree to participate in the study will partake in a phone interview first and then give a blood sample. According to the HSE’s handbook on the study, the blood samples will be taken locally. They will not be taken in centres where people are receiving care for Covid-19, suspected of having coronavirus or being tested for coronavirus. The participants’ blood will then be tested for antibodies which will show whether or not they have been exposed to Covid-19. Those who test positive for antibodies will be asked to take part in a follow-up study.

The study will enable an estimate to be made as to what proportion of the population has contracted Covid-19. Such information will be important going forward as we look to reopen businesses and reduce social distancing measures. 

Such a study could prove useful for supporters of the herd immunity strategy adopted by Sweden in response to the pandemic. According to Bloomberg, herd immunity takes hold when the virus cannot find new hosts and therefore stops spreading. For this to happen with the coronavirus, somewhere between 55-82% of the community must be immune. The results of this study could be helpful in determining whether Ireland stands a chance of achieving herd immunity, and whether social distancing measures could be eased or even abolished as a result.

In Sweden’s case, social distancing is effectively non-existent; schools, shops and restaurants have all remained open during the pandemic in line with the attempt to achieve herd immunity. The benefit of this was the preservation of their economy; the downside is that the Covid-19 related death rate in Sweden is one of the highest worldwide. 

Regardless of whether the results of Dr. De Gascun’s study suggest that Ireland is a suitable candidate for herd immunity, they will tell us who has antibodies. While we await a vaccine, antibody treatments are being considered as a therapeutic treatment against the disease. Immunology experts such as Dr. Jacob Glanville of San Francisco have suggested that blood transfusions from those who have had the coronavirus could be given to those who are fighting it, in order to introduce the antibodies from the previously infected person into the currently infected person’s blood. Since a vaccine is still likely to be over a year away, this could be a short-term solution, helping patients until a vaccine is made available.

Roisin Roberts Kuntz – Reporter