Roche CEO says it is ‘very likely’ people develop immunity after recovering from coronavirus

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People who have recovered from Covid-19 are “very likely” to be immune to the virus, according to the CEO of a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

Speaking to CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Monday, Severin Schwan, chief executive of Roche, said he believed those who had already had the coronavirus would now be immune to the illness — but he pointed out that more research was required.

“We know from other coronaviruses that it’s very likely as soon as you have gone through an infection you will also acquire immunity,” he explained. “But this still, nevertheless, has to be proven over time. We need studies to really see whether those people who have been infected once are subject to reinfection. But there’s a high likelihood that this will be the case.”

Schwan’s take on immunity to Covid-19 came after South Korean scientists concluded it was impossible for the virus to reinfect humans.

There had been some concern that people were appearing to fall ill with the coronavirus a second time in Japan, China and South Korea — but researchers from the South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that this phenomenon had been down to testing failures.

However, the WHO said in late April that there was not enough evidence on reinfection to justify the issuance of so-called “immunity passports,” which would allow those who had already had the virus to return to normal life.

A medical worker wears a protective mask as he rides on a Citi Bike outside the Mount Sinai Hospital entrance in Manhattan during the the COVID-19 shutdown on April 26, 2020 in New York City.

Roy Rochlin | Getty Images

Antibody tests

On Sunday, Roche announced that its coronavirus antibody test had received FDA Emergency Use Authorization, and would be made available in the U.S. and markets accepting the European CE standards mark.

The company claims its antibody test is at least 99.8% accurate in detecting antibodies to the virus, meaning it can detect whether an individual has been exposed to Covid-19.

Schwan told CNBC on Monday that this month, Roche would supply antibody tests “in the high double-digit millions,” with the firm looking to ramp up those numbers over the year.

“It’s highly reliable, it’s a very precise test, and indeed that has been an issue with the first generation of tests,” he said. “So now, patients and societies can rely on a highly, highly precise test.”

He also said the tests would play an important part in helping countries come up with strategies to reopen their economies from lockdowns.

“Antibody testing allows broad testing so we get a much clearer picture of how much the pandemic has spread, whether infection rates continue to increase or decrease, and over time as soon as we know whether we also acquire immunity it will allow people to return to work and to normalize our societies,” Schwan said. “So I think they’re really important — it’s a big step forward.”

Roche’s new test can be used with existing lab instruments, with the company alone having more than 40,000 platforms worldwide that can be used to perform the antibody tests.

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