Second COVID-19 peak is avoidable says Derry-based scientist Professor Tony Bjourson who has helped rapidly scale up testing locally

A scientist who helped ramp up COVID-19 testing in Derry during the first peak of the virus thinks a second wave of the illness is avoidable.

Tuesday, 23rd June 2020, 12:42 pm
C-TRIC which is based at Altnagelvin

Professor Tony Bjourson said robust screening combined with efficient contact tracing can prevent another peak.

The Derry-based academic is a founder of Ulster University’s Clinical Transitional Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) at Altnagelvin.

The research hub is part of a consortium - including Queen’s and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute - that has successfully helped scale up COVID-19 testing in Derry.

Speaking to the ‘Journal’ yesterday Prof. Bjourson said he was hopeful a feared second wave can be averted.

“While there might be discrete clusters of outbreaks, if you have very efficient viral testing, which is critically important, and then contact tracing to identify the contacts of people that have been exposed, you can prevent that second wave,” he said.

The Strabane-native has been at the forefront of helping to increase testing capacity in the Western Trust.

Researchers at C-TRIC have been working on viral swab tests, antibody tests and contact tracing. A fund-raising drive recently raised £112,000 to purchase a DNA purification machine that helped increase testing output locally to 500 tests a day.

He told the ‘Journal’ that screening for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, testing for immunity and rapidly tracing contacts, were all important elements of the COVID-19 response.

Prof. Bjourson observed: “They are all important in their own right. Diagnosing someone with the virus with a throat swab is really, really important. With the antibody testing there is some uncertainty around that at the moment because if you test positive for the antibodies what does that mean? Does that mean you are protected from subsequent infections? It may or may not be the case.”

There are two main-types of antibody test being looked at. Lateral flow immunonoassay (LFIA) tests resemble home pregnancy test kits and give a straight negative or positive result. Enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) tests are more accurate and require blood samples.

“The lateral flow devices are quick and easy and cheap but they are not as accurate as the ELISA tests. The ELISA tests have to be done on a blood sample that is sent into a lab where the lateral flow devices can be done at home or in a GP surgery,” said Prof. Bjourson. More research is needed to assess the efficacy of the various types.

Locally he reckons Derry has a long way to go before the population would come near to having any level of immunoresistance.

“The current level in Derry is about four per cent or just under four per cent of people appear to have antibodies to COVID-19. It’s slightly higher in Belfast but not much higher. If you were relying on herd immunity you’ll have a long, long way to go because you would need to get up to 60 to 70 per cent,” he said.

With discipline, good public health policy and a fair wind, however, he hopes Derry and the North will not suffer a second wave.

“The second wave I think could be prevented and it’s possibly more likely that we will have discrete clusters of outbreaks that hopefully with good testing and contact tracing can be contained,” he said.