Many more people may have been infected with coronavirus and acquired immunity than previously thought, according to a study in Germany.
Scientists studying the town at the centre of Germany's first big outbreak said yesterday that they had found antibodies to the virus in people who had shown no symptoms and were not previously thought to have been infected. Their initial findings suggest that as many as 15pc of people in Gangelt already have immunity - three times as many as previous estimates. That would mean the mortality rate in Germany is just 0.37pc - five times lower than current estimates.
"This means a gradual relaxation of the lockdown is now possible," said Prof Hendrik Streeck, the virologist leading the study.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a televised address: "We must not be reckless now. We could very quickly destroy what we have achieved."
It came as Germany revealed plans to start Europe's first large-scale antibody testing programme. The ambitious scheme announced by the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national infectious diseases centre, will attempt to map levels of immunity throughout the country. The study in Gangelt, near the Dutch border, is the first in Europe to research the virus effect on an entire community.
Scientists from the University of Bonn are testing around 1,000 people for antibodies, as well as current infection.
Initial results, based on around half the tests, found that 2pc of inhabitants were currently infected, and 14pc had antibodies to the virus.
Allowing for overlap, that suggests that 15pc of people in the town now have immunity - compared with the previous estimate of 5pc.
"The 15pc is not that far from the 60pc we need for herd immunity," said Prof Gunther Hartmann, another of the study's leaders.
"With 60 to 70pc herd immunity, the virus will completely disappear from the population. Then, the elderly are no longer at risk." (© Daily Telegraph, London)