Almost half the people living in an Austrian ski resort that was a major centre of the European coronavirus outbreak now have immunity, according to a new study released on Thursday.
Scientists from Innsbruck Medical University found antibodies to the virus in 42.4 per cent of people in Ischgl.
It is one of the highest coronavirus infection rates yet discovered anywhere in the world. A similar study in Geneva found antibodies in just 10 per cent of the population, while in the Italian ski resort of Val Gardena, it was 27 per cent.
“We believe supers-preading events, such as those that took place in aprÃ¨s-ski bars, made a significant contribution to the widespread spread,” said Prof Dorothee von Laer, the leader of the Ischgl study.
The scientists behind the new study claim it is the highest infection rate found anywhere in the world. A study in Bergamo released earlier this month found antibodies in 57 per cent of people in the Italian city, but the authors of the Ischgl study claim their research is based on more rigorous testing and a higher sample size.
The tiny village of just 1,800 people in the Tyrolean Alps, is believed to have been a major source of the European outbreak as people returned home from skiing holidays.
Hundreds of infections in Germany, Iceland, Norway and Denmark have been traced back to the resort, and it has been linked to suspected cases in the UK.
Packed apres-ski bars where people played drinking games in which they passed the same ping-pong ball from glass to glass are believed to have been the perfect environment for the virus to spread.
Yet despite the high infection rate, only nine Ischgl residents had to be hospitalised for the virus, and only two died — meaning the fatality rate in the village was just 0.24 per cent.
Research for the new study took place in April, after the resort had been closed to tourists and placed under quarantine.
The rate of infection in the village was more than six times higher than previously thought — 85 per cent of those found with antibodies had not previously been diagnosed and were unaware they had been infected,
“We assumed a high rate of undocumented cases before the start of the study and, as in other hotspots, it has now been confirmed,” said Prof von Laer.
Many of those who were not previously diagnosed reported losing their sense of taste and smell, a common symptom of the virus.
Although the infection rate was high , it did not reach the 60 to 70 per cent required for herd immunity.
“Even if this does not imply herd immunity, the population of Ischgl should still be largely protected,” said Prof von Laer.
“What is particularly interesting about the results of the study in Ischgl is that the majority of people with antibodies were identified as corona cases only by the study. This underlines the importance of antibody studies,” said Dr Peter Willeit, another of the study’s authors.
The study found the infection rate was much lower among children, at 27 per cent. Almost none of the children showed any symptoms.
In all, 1,473 Ischgl residents took part in the study, accounting for 79 per cent of the village’s population.
The scientists followed a rigorous procedure. Blood samples underwent at least two antibody tests, and in some cases were tested four times to eliminate false positives.
The authorities in Ischgl are facing legal action from skiers who say they acted too slowly in shutting the resort down.
The Austrian government ignored warnings from Iceland that it was seeing a large number of infections in people returning from the resort, and it has emerged that local authorities failed to close down crowded apres-ski bars after they knew of virus cases in the resort.
“People were hot and sweaty from skiing, and waiters were delivering shots to tables in their hundreds. You couldn't have a better home for a virus,” Daren Bland, a British IT consultant who fell ill after returning from Ischgl told the Telegraph in March
Video obtained by the Telegraph shows people packed shoulder to shoulder and singing Highway to Hell in the popular Kitzloch bar.