UK minister hails ‘game-changing’ coronavirus immunity test | Science

A health minister has hailed the UK’s approval of an immunity test for coronavirus as a game changer that could allow more people to go to work with confidence, although the government has not yet managed to buy any of the tests.

Edward Argar said the test developed by Roche “appears to be extremely reliable and it’s got the green light from Public Health England testers”.

Initially only patients in hospital could get tests in the UK. Then testing was expanded to NHS staff and care home staff. Now up to 10 million essential workers and their families who are showing symptoms of coronavirus can apply for a test via a government website

The list of essential workers is the same as the one used to allow the children of key workers to carry on going to school during the lockdown. In addition to health and social care staff, the list includes teachers, judges, some lawyers, religious staff, and journalists providing public service broadcasting.

Also included are local civil servants, police, armed service personnel, fire and rescue service staff, immigration officers and prison and probation staff. Some private-sector staff also qualify including vets, those in food production, essential financial services and information technology, as well as those working in the oil, gas, electricity and water sectors.

Matthew Weaver

He said the government wanted to get the test on stream quickly because it could make a significant difference.

However, he acknowledged that no tests had been purchased by the UK as the government was still in discussions with Roche about acquiring them.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Argar said: “We are keen to get as many as we can and get them out primarily to the front line on stream and out more widely, because as the prime minister says it has the potential to be a game changer.”

He could not give a date when they would be available for the NHS and then wider use by the public.

But he said they would make a big difference, as scientific evidence indicated it could provide a degree of immunity.

He said this could “genuinely change how you can work” because people could be confident that they all can no longer get coronavirus or transmit it to others.

Antibody testing could be of great benefit as the country emerges from lockdown because the presence of antibodies to the virus in the blood proves who has had it. However, whether a person is immune, and if so how long that immunity lasts, are still uncertain.

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The test is likely to be used to find out whether particular areas of the country, or people in certain professions, have had Covid-19, but it will not yet give individuals an immunity passport to let them restart their social lives.

This Roche antibody test is not the home finger-prick test that created a wave of excitement when Prof Sharon Peacock from Public Health England told a committee of MPs on 25 March it would be available to buy within days.

Oxford University was testing several versions of the home antibody tests, which look like pregnancy tests, at the time. All, however, failed to come up to standard.

The best were said to have been 70% accurate and most no more than 50%. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, who had bought 3m of them, was said to be seeking the government’s money back.

Roche’s test was approved at the start of May by the EU and by the Food and Drug Administration in the US as being 99.8% specific for Covid-19 – so it is not confused by antibodies against other coronaviruses which cause colds – and 100% sensitive, so it will pick up any antibodies that are present.

It will work on blood samples taken by a healthcare professional at least 14 days after a person develops Covid-19.

The Elecsys Anti-Sars-CoV-2 serology test is processed in laboratories using Roche analysers that hospitals already have. Roche says its fully automated systems can provide results in approximately 18 minutes for one single test, with a capability to do 300 tests an hour, depending on the analyser.

Prof John Newton, the national coordinator of the UK coronavirus testing programme, told the Telegraph experts at PHE’s Porton Down labs had evaluated the test and confirmed the 100% accuracy.

“This is a very positive development, because such a highly specific antibody test is a very reliable marker of past infection,” he said.

“This in turn may indicate some immunity to future infection, although the extent to which the presence of antibodies indicates immunity remains unclear.”

Scientists hope to obtain valuable data on the spread of the pandemic through mass antibody testing, which could reveal how many people have had the virus but without experiencing any symptoms. Looking at those particular groups will help in the search for vaccines and treatments.

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