As the global spread of coronavirus deepens, with more than 5,600 cases now confirmed in the UK, the pandemic has called into question over when it will subside - and if anyone is immune.
While it is not yet known who - and if - anyone is immune from the virus, health officials are currently working to increase testing, with highest-priority cases being tested first.
Testing to increase to 25,000 per day
Health officials are working to increase the number of tests for coronavirus that can be conducted by Public Health England and the NHS to 25,000 per day.
This increased capacity is expected to be ready within four weeks, and will be made available to those who are at higher risk of the virus first, including patients in critical care for pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, or flu like illness.
People in the community with a fever or cough don’t usually need testing, according to Gov.uk.
The news follows a meeting at Downing Street earlier this week (17 Mar) where the Prime Minister and Health Secretary promised industry leaders they would be given whatever support needed to help increase testing capabilities across the UK.
Boris Johnson also called on companies to work with the government in an effort to rapidly develop a test to establish whether anyone has developed immunity to the virus.
The increased testing will also include developing a point-of-care swab test outside of hospitals, so that people with suspected symptoms can quickly find out if they have coronavirus, says Gov.uk.
More than 50,000 tests for coronavirus have already been completed, and it is anticipated that with increased capacity to 25,000 daily, testing levels could soon exceed those in China.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Public safety is my top priority, and radically ramping up testing for coronavirus is a key part of our plan to protect lives.
“We are already among the best in the world for coronavirus testing and today (17 Mar) we are launching a national effort to increase our testing capability even further.
“Our aim is to protect life, protect the most vulnerable, and relieve pressure on our NHS – so it is right that we prioritise testing for those most at risk of severe illness.”
How can you tell if someone is immune to coronavirus?
Currently the NHS can only conduct a test that detects the virus in a nasal swab through laboratory analysis, which takes around 24 hours for the results.
The NHS is looking into a test that can instead detect antibodies in the blood of people who have recovered from coronavirus, which would mean they are now likely to be immune.
While no country has yet been confirmed to have such a test, Dr Hilary Jones revealed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain that a blood test is “just around the corner”.
This test is reportedly able to tell if someone has had the virus, recovered from it, and if their immunity is long lasting.
However, a vaccine for coronavirus is still in development and is likely not to be available for a long while.
Those who display symptoms of the virus, including a high temperature and a new continuous cough, are not eligible for testing and are advised to stay at home for 14 days to, along with all other members of the household. Those who live alone should isolate themselves for seven days.
Are you immune to coronavirus after you get it?
Much like the flu can mutate, it is possible that coronavirus can do the same, meaning it would make someone who has already contracted the virus susceptible to contract it a second time.
However, Dr Stephen Gluckman, an infectious diseases physician at Penn Medicine, told The Express that it seems likely that having the disease once results in immunity in most individuals, as is the case with other coronaviruses.
He said, “Coronaviruses aren’t new, they’ve been around for a long, long time and many species - not just humans - get them. So we know a fair amount about coronaviruses in general.
“For the most part, the feeling is once you’ve had a specific coronavirus, you are immune. We don’t have enough data to say that with this coronavirus, but it is likely.”
If this proves to be the case, people who initially recovered from the virus are more likely to relapse, rather than get reinfected.
However, that doesn’t mean it is not possible to contract the virus again, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains, “The immune response to Covid-19 is not yet understood.
“Patients with MERS-CoV infection are unlikely to be reinfected shortly after they recover, but it is not yet known whether similar immune protection will be observed for patients with Covid-19.”
What is herd immunity?
Herd immunity occurs when much of the population is protected from a contagious disease because a significant proportion of its number has become immune, either by having survived an infection or because they have been immunised.
England's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said last week that a herd immunity approach could be beneficial.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied that was the Government's policy, describing it as a "scientific concept".
The approach had been criticised by a group of scientists from UK universities, who said it risks "many more lives than necessary", and was called into question by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
How to boost your immune system
With those who have weaker immune systems being more susceptible to coronavirus, there are a few simple steps you can take to help give your body a boost.
The NHS recommends taking the following five steps to help boost your immune system:
- Go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible and get a good night’s sleep
- Eat more fruit and vegetables
- Consume more milk and dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt and fromage frais
- Do regular exercise and stay active as much as you can
- Have a hearty breakfast every day, such as a bowl of porridge, which is a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals
Coronavirus: the facts
What is coronavirus?
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.
What caused coronavirus?
The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.
How is it spread?
As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But, similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore, covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.
What are the symptoms?
The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.
What precautions can be taken?
Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.
As of Monday 16 March the government advised that everyone should be observing social distancing - avoiding unnecessary travel and working from home where possible. Anyone with a cough or cold symptoms now needs to self-isolate with their entire household for 14 days.
The government has now instructed bars, restaurants and theatres to close and will review on a ‘month to month’ basis. Schools closed from Friday 20 March for the foreseeable future, and exams have been cancelled.
The over 70s or anyone who is vulnerable or living with an underlying illness are being asked to be extra careful and stay at home to self-isolate. People with serious underlying health conditions will be contacted and strongly advised to undertake "shielding" for 12 weeks.
For more information on government advice, please check their website gov.uk
Should I avoid public places?
The advice now is to avoid public places and any non-essential travel. Travel abroad is also being advised against for the next 30 days at least, and many European countries have closed their borders.
What should I do if I feel unwell?
Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next. nhs.uk/covid-19
When to call NHS 111
NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.
Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS