Virologist Van Ranst on testing, antibodies, taking in foreign patients and the EU’s lacklustre performance

Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst has warned that the daily figures released with regard to the new confirmed coronavirus cases in Belgium need to be increased by a factor of ten, if you want to know the real figure.  “And that’s probably an underestimate” he adds.

Many people have coronavirus without knowing it.  People with few symptoms are not tested.  Only afterwards when we examine how many people have produced antibodies will we know the true scale of the infection he says.  “This will be the case with many people.”

Antibodies remain in your blood for a long time and provide protection against the disease, but that won’t last long.

“When you visit your doctor in six months, you can check if you’ve had the infection.  Then you’ll still be protected for another six months to a year.”

The protection situation is similar to that with ordinary flu.  If you’ve had a particular strain, you won’t get it again for a year or two, but there’s no protection after that.

“If the virus disappears in a while, it will probably return.  These viruses are notoriously seasonal.  It means they return at the same time every year.  It’s the case with the four other coronaviruses.  We will have to draw out time until there is a vaccine, to ensure hospitals can cope.”

The vaccine, the real solution, will be ready in twelve months at the earliest.

More and more people are arguing for greater, mass scale testing.  Marc Van Ranst says that idea sounds good in principle, but is hard to put into practise and is no miracle cure.

“Testing never cured anybody. If you know people’s status, you can isolate them.  But at the minute we’re asking everybody who is ill to isolate, so it won’t make much difference, if you are confirmed.”

“Everybody wanted more testing, me included, but all links in the chain need to be available.  First there was a lack of machines and staff.  We sorted that.  Then there was a lack of reactive agents.  It’s getting sorted, but now there is a new bottleneck: a lack of material to take samples deep in the nose.”

The most important thing at the moment is that people who are ill can be properly cared for.

“Some hospitals are getting pretty full. If we take Belgium as a whole our hospital capacity is not yet being tested.  Critical care beds are still available.  We are fortunate to live in a country with a generous number of critical care beds.  In countries like the UK and the Netherlands this is far less the case. Our system can still take it.”

Marc Van Ranst supports calls for European solidarity.

“When they can’t sort it in France or the Netherlands, we can look at taking in patients, but that’s one for the politicians!”

The virologist condemns a lack of initiative from the European Union: “There could have been more and better initiatives.  Central management of a health crisis needs be organised in a better way next time.”