Government plans to purchase antibody tests to detect if someone has had coronavirus could be a “gamechanger” in the UK’s response to the illness, the Prime Minister has said.
Boris Johnson said “hundreds of thousands” of kits could be bought if the tests prove effective, with negotiations currently ongoing.
The human body produces antibodies when it fights an infection, so by measuring antibodies in the blood doctors can detect whether someone has had the infection previously.
According to Public Health England (PHE), understanding who has previously had Covid-19 will allow it to refine its estimates of how many people in the population will be affected and the rate of spread.
Speaking about testing on Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “To give you an idea of what is coming down the track, we’re in negotiations today to buy a so-called antibody test, as simple as a pregnancy test which can tell whether you have had the disease and it’s early days, but if it works as its proponents claim, then we will buy literally hundreds of thousands of these kits as soon as practicable.
“Because obviously it has the potential to be a total gamechanger.”
Public Health England (PHE) said it was currently developing a blood test for antibodies by analysing blood samples from people who have recovered from coronavirus infection.
The test and its criteria are still in development, but PHE expects it to play a key role in its surveillance of infections, with 1,500 tests a week initially.
Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty said on Thursday: “On the antibody tests we should be clear that although we’re confident there will be antibody tests, we’re not absolutely confident yet about whether the ones that are currently on the market are the right ones and that needs to be tested out.
“And that’s something that is an absolute priority for Public Health England.
Prof Whitty added: “But once we have these, the key thing for in the first case health care workers and then other workers and members of society, we’ll be able to say to somebody, you’ve had this virus, you’re not likely to get it again at least in the immediate term, and now we can be confident you can return to work and now we can be confident you don’t need to be taking some of the precautions you’ve been taking to date.”
He said that “there will be a while before we’ve actually got this in large enough numbers” and it is “more useful” the further along in the outbreak.
Dr Alexander Edwards, associate professor in Biomedical Technology at the University of Reading, welcomed the intention to scale up testing for antibodies.
He said: “It is absolutely possible to make very large numbers of these rapid antibody tests because the factories needed to make such diagnostic tests can scale up production rapidly, using very sophisticated ‘printers’ onto rolls of special paper.”
Dr Edwards said health experts needed time to work with industry to ensure tests were accurate.
“These could make a big difference – in following spread, in helping NHS workers return to work safely following self-isolation, and also in testing the new vaccines being developed,” he added.
Mr Johnson said authorities were also “massively increasing” testing on people who may currently have coronavirus, with daily testing going “from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000”.
According to the Department of Health and Social Care, as of 9am on Thursday, 64,621 people have been tested for coronavirus in the UK, of which 61,352 were confirmed negative and 3,269 positive.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson also said UK scientists were expect to start trials for the first coronavirus vaccine with a month.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the first trials patient was enrolled on Thursday, with a start date of mid-April expected.