An antibody test to show whether someone in the UK has had coronavirus will be made available through the NHS after the government announced it had agreed deals with Swiss pharma company Roche and American competitor Abbott Laboratories.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, said the UK had agreed to buy 10m antibody tests initially, which will be rolled out in a “phased way” from next week. Frontline NHS and care workers will be prioritised for the free tests, which detect past Covid-19 infection.
The financial terms of the deals were not disclosed.
Antibodies are thought to confer a degree of immunity from future infection, although scientists differ on how long such effects may last. Scientists also hope to use the tests — which can identify antibodies in people who were infected but did not display symptoms — to track the spread of the virus in the population.
Questions about the accuracy and reliability of the new Covid-19 antibody tests had prevented policymakers from rolling them out but last Wednesday it emerged that Public Health England had given the green light to Roche’s version of the test the previous week. Then on Thursday it endorsed a version made by Abbott Laboratories.
PHE is not a regulator, but independently evaluates the tests’ performance.
Speaking at the daily Downing Street briefing on Thursday, Mr Hancock also announced that trials of a new coronavirus swab test to determine if someone is infected, capable of returning results in just 20 minutes, will start in Hampshire next week.
He said the trial, which will last six weeks and see up to 4,000 people tested “is interesting to us because it is so fast”.
He said: “You get the result on the spot. We will monitor its effectiveness very closely, and if it works, we’ll roll it out as soon as we can. A successful, fast test would help track the spread of the virus.”
Mr Hancock also revealed a government surveillance study indicated 17 per cent of people living in London had so far had the virus, compared with 5 per cent of the overall population.
He said a “certification” system would be developed for those who tested positive for antibodies.
“We’re developing this critical science to know the impact of a positive antibody test and to develop the systems of certification to ensure people who have positive antibodies can be given assurances of what they can safely do,” he said.
Roche said last week it would be able to provide hundreds of thousands of antibody tests a week to the UK, while Abbott said it was ready to ship “5m tests to the UK each month with immediate effect”.
Roche’s test must be carried out by a doctor. Some intermediaries have sold Abbott’s assay for self-use, though the company has stated it is only designed for use in a healthcare setting and should not be conducted at home. In both cases the blood is sent to a laboratory for evaluation.
These are different from self-administered finger prick antibody tests giving a result within minutes; ministers had hoped to roll these out to the general public weeks ago but they are not yet considered accurate enough.
Roche, which along with Abbott is among the biggest diagnostics makers worldwide, said the level of accuracy for its Sars-Cov-2 antibody test was high, and it was able to distinguish the antibodies from those for closely related coronaviruses, which have been known to produce positive results in tests made by other companies.
The company added that on top of longer-lasting antibodies, the test can also help identify IgM antibodies — those produced in the body’s initial response against the infection. This could help establish the approximate time of exposure to the virus.
For those prepared to pay, private clinics in the UK have already started offering Covid-19 lab-based antibody tests, with demand coming from anxious individuals and businesses looking for “back to work” solutions.
Private doctor service Qured, which uses the Abbott test, said 16 per cent of the 1,504 samples it had processed so far had been positive, with another 4 per cent “borderline”. CityDoc, a group of private GP practices that is also using Abbott’s antibody test, said it had processed “thousands” so far, with 15 per cent of a random sample of 135 results showing a positive result.
However, these findings are unlikely to be representative of the UK population. Recent data from France and Spain suggested only 4 per cent and 5 per cent of their populations respectively had Covid-19 antibodies.
Several private clinics said last week they had been unable to purchase the Roche test because it was being reserved for the NHS. Roche said it was working with UK authorities to prioritise NHS staff and patients.
Although data from private sector tests could be useful sources of information for public health authorities, the clinics said there was no guidance about reporting antibody test results to PHE, which had not asked them to do so.
Positive results of Covid-19 diagnostic tests legally must be reported, but there is no such requirement for Covid-19 antibody tests.