Coronavirus: NHS staff will be first to get new antibody test, medical chief promises

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Frontline workers, including NHS staff, will be the first to get a new test showing whether they have had coronavirus, one of England’s deputy chief medical officers has said.

The government is in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche to buy its Covid-19 antibody test, which Public Health England (PHE) has backed after experts at Porton Down science laboratories approved it.

The test, which Boris Johnson has previously called a “game-changer”, detects whether somebody has had coronavirus. Roche says it is 100 per cent effective in picking up those who have had the virus, even in people who experienced no symptoms.

Experts believe those who have had Covid-19 develop a degree of immunity, and if it can be shown people were definitely immune to catching coronavirus a second time, they could safely go back to work without fear of catching or spreading the virus.

So the government has faced enormous pressure to find a reliable antibody test. In theory, widespread testing would allow the lockdown to be ended for those in the clear.

A different batch of tests ordered by the government in mid-March was deemed too unreliable to be used.

Deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said it was clear that people who had Covid-19 generated an antibody response, but it would take time to understand whether in all cases people developed immunity and whether any immune response offered lifelong protection or just a few years.

The test would be “incredibly important” in the weeks and months ahead, he said, adding: “I anticipate that it will be rapidly rolled out in the days and weeks to come – as soon as it is practical.

“I also anticipate that the focus will be on the National Health Service and on carers in the first instance.”

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The test, already given preliminary approval by the EU and the US, involves taking a small sample of blood and testing it for antibodies that appear after exposure to coronavirus.

No 10 said the new test would “certainly” be available on the NHS, but commercial discussions with Roche were continuing.

The prime minister’s spokesperson said the idea of an “immunity certificate” was also still under consideration if science showed that people developed immunity.

Prof John Newton, of PHE and coordinator of the UK coronavirus testing programme, said the test was a “very positive development” and was very reliable.

“We were confident that good-quality antibody tests would become available when they were needed,” he said.

Porton Down experts, who carried out an independent evaluation of the test, concluded it was 100 per cent accurate. “This in turn may indicate some immunity to future infection although the extent to which the presence of antibodies indicates immunity remains unclear.”

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In this day and age, understanding bacteria and viruses and developing vaccines are national security issues. In my view sizable part of every country’s defense budget should be spent in these pursuits rather than making tanks and other weapons.

There are believers in the discovery reported today and then there are the critics:

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