Mass testing kits a ‘gamechanger’
Amazon and Boots could send out equipment that would show if people are immune to virus
9529 CORONAVIRUS CASES IN UK +18%
MORE than three million “gamechanger” testing kits that reveal whether people have already had coronavirus could be available via Amazon and Boots within weeks.
Officials want the tests, which are called antibody tests and only work when a person has recovered, to go first to those who most urgently need to return to work, such as health workers. Some scientists believe the spread of the virus is far more widespread than official figures suggest. King’s College London claims one in 10 people – about 6.5million – may have the virus.
The prospect of widespread testing could mean that key public services and parts of economy are able to reopen within weeks.
Senior officials have laid out plans to increase the rate of testing amid warnings that the pandemic is likely to peak around Easter and came as Boris Johnson said that in just 24 hours half a million people had signed up to be volunteers for the NHS.
Health chiefs yesterday said they had secured 3.5million home testing kits – to be targeted at key workers including hospital and care staff – and ordered millions more for use more widely.
Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, said trials should com- pleted this week with the finger-prick tests distributed by Amazon, or pharmacists such as Boots.
Asked when this could happen, she told MPS: “I would be somewhat less categorical about the date but in the near future people will be able to order a test that they can test on themselves or go to Boots or somewhere similar to get their finger-prick test done.” She said the tests would allow key workers including doctors and nurses to return to work if they had developed antibodies.
Health officials later suggested the timescale was more likely to be weeks. They also stressed that this was unlikely to be a commercial service, with the NHS seeking to harness the logistical skills of such providers, rather than allow people to buy their own kits online.
The Prime Minister has said such tests could ultimately prove a “gamechanger”, allowing millions to know if they had developed immunity.
Last night health chiefs said the priority was to boost capacity so that NHS staff with symptoms could be tested. Currently, health services are only testing around 6,000 cases a day – the vast majority of whom are hospital patients.
As a result, doctors and nurses with possible symptoms and those who had come into contact with cases were having to self-isolate for up to two weeks without knowing if they had the virus.
Yesterday, Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said tests would be made available to some NHS staff in “the next few days”. Ministers pledged to increase total numbers to 25,000 a day by the end of next month and ultimately to 250,000 tests a day.
Prof Powis said he hoped to “get to hundreds of thousands of tests a day – and we will do that over the course of the next few weeks and we will be making tests available to NHS staff within the next few days.”
Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said the peak of coronavirus cases in the UK could come around Easter then decline, if Britain maintained social distancing guidelines.
“What we hope is that in about two to three weeks, if people have continued to do as we have asked and cut
‘Anybody who looks around the world can see this is going to be difficult for every health system’
down their social interactions, we would start to see a change in the slope of the graph,” she said. “That means the peak will be pushed forward but the height of it will be lower and we can manage all those who need hospital and healthcare safely through our NHS.”
Dr Harries said concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline staff treating coronavirus patients were top of the list, revealing her own daughter was a junior doctor working for the NHS, who had raised the issue. Medics had said they were being sent like “lambs to the slaughter” treating patients.
Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, said the ability of the NHS to cope would depend on public cooperation: “Anybody who looks around the world can see this is going to be difficult for every health system. But the measures announced for the public – which all of us have to do if the NHS is to get through this, and the fantastic work by the NHS to increase supply – that is the way we will narrow this gap over the next three weeks.”
He added that if everybody stuck to the rules on limiting social interaction “this gap will be probably manageable by the NHS.”
Earlier, Prof Neil Ferguson, an infectious diseases expert, said the lockdown should mean the NHS could cope. He told MPS that keeping people inside and increasing NHS staff and beds would stop intensive care units being overwhelmed, although there could be difficulties at local level.
But there was now a “reasonable degree of certainty” that government measures could put the epidemic into decline. “In some areas ICUS will get very close to capacity but it won’t be breached at a national level,” he told the science and technology committee.