Home-test kits may be available to public soon
The government is developing devices for the public that could show within 15 minutes whether people have already had coronavirus – and thus may have some immunity – the director of Public Health England’s national infection service has told MPs.
Millions of 15-minute home coronavirus tests are set to be available on the high street or for Amazon delivery to people self-isolating, according to Public Health England (PHE), in a move that could restore many lives to a semblance of pre-lockdown normality.
Prof Sharon Peacock, the director of the national infection service at PHE, told MPs on the science and technology committee that mass testing in the UK would be possible within days, saying evaluation of the fingerprick tests should be completed this week.
The government later took a more cautious line, saying the tests would not be available so quickly.
It has bought 3.5m tests – which reveal whether someone has had the virus and is therefore thought to have some immunity – and is ordering millions more, it has said.
At the prime minister’s daily press conference yesterday, the government’s medical and scientific advisers said they needed to be certain the tests worked before they could be released.
“The key thing for us to do is evaluate – are these tests accurate enough to be used by the general public?” said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer. “If they are incredibly accurate, we will work out the quickest way to release them. If they are not accurate, we will not release any of them.”
The tests would “completely transform what we can do”,but they were not as important as the antigen tests used to diagnose Covid-19 in sick hospital patients, he said.
Boris Johnson said the government would make antibody tests available when it could. “We will do it as soon as possible,” he said. “We are massively ramping up our testing programme.”
The home test, which looks like a pregnancy test, involves pricking a finger to produce a drop of blood, which is then analysed by the device.
“Several million tests have been purchased for use,” Peacock said. “These are brand new products. We have to be clear they work as they are claimed to do. Once they have been tested this week and the bulk of tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community.”
Amazon has agreed to carry out distribution and the tests are also set to go on sale in chemist shops.
Asked if they would be available in days rather than weeks or months,
Peacock said: “Yes, absolutely.” If there was a charge for them, she thought it would be minimal, she added.
Widespread availability of a fingerprick test that produces results in 10 to 15 minutes would be a game-changer. NHS doctors and nurses with symptoms would know immediately if they had had Covid-19, enabling them to get back to work sooner.
Once people knew that they had had the virus they would be able to resume their normal lives, no longer having to work from home or keep their distance from other people.
It is widely thought that having had Covid-19 makes people immune to the disease. There have been cases of apparent reinfection, though they are rare.
The test detects the presence of IGM, an antibody that arises very early on in the infection, and IGG, which is increased in the body’s response to the virus. The results of some of the tests on order can be read by anyone, but others would need to be interpreted by healthcare professionals.
The UK is not the only country ordering the tests. “Tests are being ordered across Europe and elsewhere and purchased in south-east Asia. This is widespread practice. We are not alone in doing this,” said Peacock.
Amazon had agreed to deliver the home tests, Peacock said. There was no suggestion from her that the Royal Mail might be given the contract.
The government has promised that daily tests for current viral infection will reach 25,000. Last week, the number of people tested topped 8,000 but then fell to a low of 5,522, before recovering on Tuesday to 6,491.
A Boots spokesperson said: “We are keen to work with the government to explore opportunities to support Covid-19 testing and to support the NHS in any way we can. However we do not have any type of Covid-19 tests in our stores. Customers should not make a trip to a Boots store or pharmacy for this purpose.”
The government has so far bought 3.5m tests, which Johnson said would be released ‘as soon as possible’