By Giulia Segreti

ROME (Reuters) – Italian digital services company Triboo <TB.MI> said on Thursday it had started selling antibody tests for Covid-19 produced by China’s SOBC Outdo Biotech, as Italy draws closer to easing the lockdown measures imposed to tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Pharmaceutical firms are racing to develop tests that could tell whether people have had Covid-19 and authorities have been trying to set up broad-based testing systems as part of plans for a controlled return to work after weeks of lockdown.

Triboo’s announcement comes as Italy’s northern region of Lombardy, the epicentre of the country’s outbreak, is set to start tests on citizens in four of its hardest-hit cities. It will be extended to the entire region next week.

That project will use a test developed by Diasorin <DIAS.MI> in conjunction with the Poloclinico San Matteo hospital in Pavia.

On Monday, Italian e-commerce group Giglio <GGTV.MI> announced a similar move, signing a deal with China’s Sinopharm <1099.HK> to sell medical products, including antibody tests.

Triboo will initially sell to companies, which are preparing to restart operations once the government lifts a weeks-long shutdown of factories and business to speed up health checks of staff returning to work, a company spokesman said.

It could also sell to the general public “as soon as the situation is more calm”, he said.

The SOBC Outdo Biotech kits produce a result in 10-15 minutes, the statement said.

Antibody tests are a fast way of identifying people who have been infected by the virus and are considered critical for measuring and controlling its spread.

But there have been some questions about the reliability and accuracy of some antibody tests, highlighting the challenge in fighting the epidemic.

Triboo will take orders via email and kits will be sent from its Shanghai office and delivered in 10-15 days, the company said.

Shares in Triboo rose as much as 12.5% in early trading and were up 11.4% at 1.56 euros per share at 0930 GMT, after failing to start trading at open due to excess volatility.

The death toll in Italy since the coronavirus outbreak came to light on Feb 21 now stands at 25,085 – the second highest in the world after that of the United States – and the number of confirmed cases on Wednesday was 187,327.

Italy is likely to start easing its lockdown measures from May 4, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Giulia Segreti; editing by Gianluca Semeraro and Josephine Mason)