By Aislinn Laing

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Chile will start handing out certificates to people who have recovered from the novel coronavirus that will exempt them from adhering to quarantines or other restrictions, the health ministry said on Thursday.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said he hoped some of the 1,274 people identified as having recovered from COVID-19 – 21% of the total confirmed cases – would be able to help restart the local economy which has been paralysed since the virus was first confirmed in Chile at the start of March and successive lockdowns were announced.

“Those given a medical discharge certificate will be freed from all types of quarantine or restriction, specifically because they can help their communities enormously since they pose no risk,” he said in a briefing at La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago.

Those who have recovered represented a population that was “immune” to the coronavirus and “incapable of transmitting it,” he added.

The certificates will be handed out after the roll-out in Chile of rapid fingerprick tests to detect the presence of antibodies due to start within two weeks, he added.

The new tests aim to identify antibodies showing contact with the virus and whether the body has developed a defense against it. They are simpler than PCR swab tests on mucus used to confirm the virus itself, but some authorities have questioned their reliability.

Britain said this week it had provisionally ordered 17.5 million of the fast tests, but Health Minister Matt Hancock has said some of those in a trial work poorly, and that one test missed three out of four cases.

Uncertainty remains about relapses, with cases reported globally including South Korea of people testing positive after recovering.

Cristobal Cuadrado, a public health expert at the Universidad de Chile, said it was unconfirmed whether the antibodies tested for provided lasting immunity.

“If you want to confirm that someone is not infectious, you must ensure that they have at least one negative PCR test to be released from quarantine,” he said on Twitter.

Chile’s government closed schools, malls and restaurants within days of the first confirmed cases and announced $14 billion worth of measures to mitigate its effect on vulnerable families, businesses and a growing number of jobless people.

To date Chile has 5,972 confirmed cases of the virus and there have been 57 deaths.

(Reporting by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Richard Chang)