Melbourne researchers work on rapid test to show COVID immunity

Melbourne’s Burnet Institute is working on a quick test that could reveal if you have been infected with and cleared of COVID-19, potentially allowing people to return to work.

The project is headed by Associate Professor David Anderson, who led a similar effort to develop a finger-prick blood test to monitor immune cells in patients with HIV.

An electron microscope image of the virus that causes COVID-19.Credit:NIAID-RML via AP

The institute declined to comment on Wednesday, but The Age understands a major announcement is in the works, potentially within the next month.

The state government has invested $1 million in the project as part of $14.7 million invested across 17 research programs.

But similar tests have run into controversy. The Age revealed in May that the federal government spent almost $10 million on 500,000 antibody tests that independent research showed were too inaccurate to diagnose COVID-19.

An accurate test would be crucial for the healthcare sector, allowing doctors and nurses with immunity to avoid isolating after coming into contact with people with COVID-19.

Promotional material for the program does not specify how the institute’s point-of-care tests work. Similar tests monitor levels of antibodies in the blood.

Australia’s extremely low prevalence of COVID-19 means such a test is useful only if it is close to 100 per cent accurate. If not, it is likely to generate more false positives than real results.

In a video uploaded to the institute’s website, Professor Anderson said the test would be similar to the one he worked on for HIV.

"We need to identify people who have been infected, first to see who may still be infectious and need to be isolated or treated, and to find their contacts. But also to identify those who have recovered from the infection and may be safe to return to work, especially in high-risk occupations," he said.

"Accuracy is really the key here. We need to get it right."

The state government has also given the institute $1 million for an ambitious study that will closely track 1000 Victorians to try to improve the effectiveness of mask wearing, social distancing and lockdowns.

The first-of-its-kind study, led by Professor Margaret Hellard, will feed information back to the government every month so it can fine-tune its strategy.

"At the centre of this is, without an effective vaccine or therapy, essentially the one weapon we have in our toolbox is human behaviour," said Professor Hellard.

Participants will initially be asked to keep a daily diary of activities and contacts, and take part in surveys and interviews.

The researchers will then test interventions on them – such as delivering food packages to people in isolation to see if that encourages them to stay in their houses.

"Can we even avoid having further significant shutdowns? That’s what we’re really aiming for," said Professor Hellard.

"How do we cut transmission, respond quickly and make it less likely we’re going to have to go into significant lockdowns?"

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