20 May 2020 22:34
NHS and social care staff will be given antibody tests revealing whether they have had coronavirus from next week, ministers are to announce on Thursday. In a move designed to reduce frontline workers' anxiety and provide data on how many people have had Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of workers will be offered access to the blood tests, which must be processed in laboratories. However, experts warned of the risk of creating a false sense of security for those with positive antibody test results, as they offer no guarantee of immunity. "As we learn more about the role of antibodies, this could open the door to different ways of working and reduce the level of risk to NHS staff by allocating those who have had the virus to care for Covid-19 patients. "The new test's arrival should not simply be seen as a green light to reduce PPE and other protections for NHS staff who test positive." Public Health England (PHE) validated two laboratory-based antibody tests from Swiss-based Roche and US-based Abbott last week, and another – from the Welsh firm Ortho Clinical Diagnostics – this week.
Initially, priority will be given to frontline hospital personnel working most closely with Covid patients, such as intensive care staff, those working on coronavirus wards and doctors and nurses in A&E units. Scientists will monitor those who test positive to see whether their antibody levels drop over time and whether any of them fall ill again. Despite the lack of guaranteed immunity, one source with knowledge of the plan expressed hope that the tests would instil confidence in NHS workers. "The intention is that NHS and care staff will get these tests in the first instance to see if they've had the virus, so that they can feel able to go back to work safely, knowing that they will have at least some immunity," the source said. A senior figure in the NHS added: "Antibody tests for staff could be a real game-changer in letting hospitals restart services.
"If a person takes a test and gets a false positive, they may assume they have been exposed and that they have immunity when they do not," said Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol. "So the bottom line is: don't spend money and time on any test unless you have a very clear idea of what the result does or does not mean for you and what you are going to do or not do if you get a positive or negative result." Their presence does not indicate that someone is immune, and it should be remembered that any post-infection immunity may dwindle rapidly … We just don't know enough about what it takes to make someone immune to Covid-19 to accurately test people," he said. Ortho Clinical Diagnostics has two lab-based tests. "We are the only one of the major companies [producing antibody tests] with UK manufacturing," he said. There were various uses for the test, he said. The other major use of antibody tests is across populations, to find out what proportion of people have been infected. Stephen Powis, NHS England's national medical director, confirmed at the Downing Street briefing that antibody tests would be given first to NHS and care home patients and staff. Their use will be in those settings and surveillance so we get some impression of how many people in this population have been infected by the virus," he said. "The antibody test shows you that you have had the virus. What we don't absolutely know at the moment is whether having antibodies means that you won't get the virus again," he said. The COVID-19 antibody home sampling kit, which costs £69 and is on sale from today (May 20), analyses a blood sample provided by the patient to test whether they have had COVID-19 in the past and have recovered. The blood sample must be taken at least 14 days after a patient has presented with COVID-19 symptoms, or it can be used at any time if an individual has never experienced symptoms. The multiple said today that "all of the components of the home sampling test kits are CE marked and the test run by a United Kingdom Accreditation Service-accredited laboratory". The tests will only be available online, via Superdrug's online doctor service and customers will not be able to purchase them in-store. Superdrug claims the test "has a sensitivity a sensitivity of 97.5%" and that it "has a specificity of 100%, which means it will not give you a positive result if you do not have coronavirus antibodies". Superdrug healthcare director Michael Henry, said the test is Public Health England certified and provides an "accessible way for people to know whether they have already been infected with COVID-19". However, Superdrug's doctor ambassador Dr Zoe Williams stressed that testing positive for having had the virus "does not confer immunity". "It is important that people understand [that] a positive test result does not mean you can be any more relaxed with the required hygiene and social distancing measures set out by the government," she added. Superdrug has become the first high street retailer to offer a coronavirus antibody test to shoppers - but it won't come cheap. The Government announced this week that anyone aged five and over in the UK with symptoms of COVID-19 can now be tested for the deadly virus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government was "expanding eligibility for testing further than ever before". However, people are still struggling to get a hold of the NHS' home test kits after the NHS appeared to run out of its daily allocation within hours on Tuesday after the eligibility list was expanded. With key workers being given priority for the Government's home testing kits, others who are not able to get a hold of one from the NHS will now be able to order one from Superdrug The pharmacy giant is offering a coronavirus blood test through its Online Doctor service for shoppers who have symptoms. The components of the home sampling test kits are CE marked and the test is run by a UKAS-accredited laboratory, Superdrug has said. Michael Henry, the chain's healthcare director explained: "We're launching a Covid-19 antibody test because we're confident of its accuracy and reliability." Superdrug doctor ambassador, Dr Zoe Williams, added: "Now that Public Health England have approved certain antibody tests, it is great that Superdrug are offering the validated test to its customers. Receiving a positive antibody test result does not confer immunity, and it is important that people understand a positive test result does not mean you can be any more relaxed with the required hygiene and social distancing measures as set out by the government." The new test will be sent via post and will contain a blood sampling kit with detailed instructions. The results are then available from Superdrug Online Doctor within 24 hours of the sample reaching the lab. How accurate is the Covid-19 antibody test? Though a small number of previous infections can go undetected due to an insufficient immune response developed by the individual, or the test not being able to detect the antibodies. Superdrug says the test has a specificity of 100%, meaning that a positive result is specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and there's no cross-reactivity between other viral antibodies (such as flu). The real issue is that no-one knows the level of immunity that is conferred by having antibodies to coronavirus, how long it might last, and if you can become re-infected. We need much more information and data on immunity before we can understand the importance of having antibodies to the virus." The Covid-19 Antibody Blood Test costs £69 and is available online.