Coronavirus antibody test: What is it and how can I get a home testing kit?

Sabrina Barr

In March, the NHS outlined plans to run 10,000 tests for coronavirus a day amid the pandemic.

Shortly afterwards, the government announced its intention to carry out 100,000 coronavirus tests by the end of April, which Boris Johnson appeared to increase to a target of 200,000 a day in May.

On Thursday 28 May, NHS Test and Trace was launched across England, a scheme that will enable people with coronavirus to trace others they have made contact with and thus prevent further transmission of the virus.

The accompanying app was originally delayed for several weeks, after being trialled in the Isle of Wight.

After announcing that the app wouldn’t be ready until winter, it was reported that the government had ditched its plans for a custom-made contact-tracing app in favour of technology provided by Apple and Google.

There has recently been increased interest in the development and deliverance of an antibody test, which may be able to help prevent further spread of the virus.

It has been reported that an antibody test, said to be “100 per cent accurate”, has been approved by health officials and could be rolled out within weeks.

The test has been deemed safe and reliable for widespread use by Public Health England and has been developed by pharmaceutical giant Roche.

So what is an antibody test?

An antibody test, also called a serological test, is supposed to be able to detect whether a person has already had the coronavirus before, and has since recovered.

The test would do this by testing individuals’ blood for coronavirus antibodies to see if they have already recovered from the virus and therefore may have gained a certain degree of immunity to it.

On 19 March, health secretary Matt Hancock tweeted that the government is “in negotiations for a brand-new type of antibody test — which can tell you if you’ve had the virus and are immune”, saying that the government planned on buying hundreds of thousands of tests.

During the daily press conference on Tuesday 24 March, the health secretary stated that the government had bought 3.5 million antibody tests “that will allow people to see whether they have had the virus and are immune to it and then can get back to work”.

However, on 6 April the government’s testing chief admitted that none of the 3.5 million antibody tests, which were ordered from China, were fit for widespread use.

On Thursday 14 May, it was reported that a “100 per cent accurate” antibody test had been approved for use in the UK for the first time.

The tests, which were developed by Swiss firm Roche, have already been in use in the US.

According to The Times, UK officials are in talks to roll out millions of antibody tests across the UK.

The implementation of the antibody test would enable NHS staff to know if they have been in contact with Covid-19 and return to work following self-isolation, in addition to tracking the the extent to which the virus has spread across the country.

In late March, a Public Health England director said that 15-minute home test kits, which can determine whether a person has or has had the coronavirus, would be made available to the British public within days.

However, Professor Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, later dismissed the claim the tests would be ready for circulation so soon, adding that frontline NHS workers would be prioritised for tests once they are available.

On Friday 17 April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) cast doubt on the use of antibody tests to detect immunity from Covid-19.

Expert epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove informed a briefing that the presence of antibodies in the blood does not necessarily mean a person is no longer at risk of catching the virus again.

Where else are antibody tests being used?

In February, it was reported that Singapore had become one of the first countries to trial an antibody test.

The test, which was described as a “world first”, was developed by scientists at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

On 23 March, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York City stated that he would like antibody blood tests to be utilised so that healthcare workers who have immunity to the virus can return to work.

At a daily press conference, the governor said that a “serological drug” is being developed that would test the antibodies of individual to see “if they had the virus already”.

“We all believe thousands and thousands of people have had the virus and self-resolved. If you knew that, you would know who is now immune to the virus and who you can send back to work,” he stated.

During her briefing on Friday 17 April, Dr Maria van Kerkhove of WHO said: “There are a lot of countries that are suggesting using rapid diagnostic serological tests to be able to capture what they think will be a measure of immunity.

“Right now, we have no evidence that the use of a serological test can show that an individual has immunity or is protected from reinfection.”

On 29 April, it was reported that an antibody test to check whether someone has been infected with coronavirus, and said to be 99 per cent accurate, had been certified for use across Europe.

Global diagnostics specialists Abbott, which has a UK base in Maidenhead, said it was expecting to have shipped millions of the laboratory based lab tests across Europe by the end of May.

What does a test for Covid-19 involve?

Tests for Covid-19 involve a swab of the nose or throat being taken, in addition to samples of sputum being taken if you have a congested cough.

On Wednesday 15 April, health secretary Mr Hancock promised coronavirus tests for all care home residents with symptoms, in addition to tests for care workers.

Just under a fortnight later, he declared that anyone over the age of 65 who exhibits symptoms of Covid-19 will be able to undergo a test.

On Monday 18 May, Mr Hancock announced that everyone over the age of five who is showing symptoms of Covid-19 is eligible for a coronavirus test.​

If you are showing symptoms of the coronavirus — the two main symptoms being a high temperature and a new, continuous cough — it is advised that you contact the NHS’s online 111 service and self-isolate for seven days.

Can I get a home testing kit for coronavirus?

In late March, it was stated that home testing kits for coronavirus could become available in a “couple of weeks”.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said that plans were in place for “a million tests that people can do themselves”.

“In other words, members of the public will be able to take a blood test and send it back in the post and get that analysed,” she told the health and social care committee on Thursday 26 March. “That is an antibody test that tells you if you have had the condition.

“We expect that to come within a couple of weeks but I wouldn’t want to over promise on that, and I think the chief medical officer has been absolutely clear on it being right before it is put out.”

Through NHS Test and Trace, if a person develops symptoms of Covid-19, then the scheme should allow them to access a test quickly, the government states.

There are several ways an individual can get tested for the coronavirus, including going to a drive-through regional test site, visiting a mobile testing unit and having a test kit delivered to their home.

There is also hospital-based testing for NHS patients and staff and dedicated testing centres in other care settings such as in care homes.

“When you order a test, you will get information on the options available to you,” the government says.

“We currently aim to provide results within 48 hours of taking a test, but some results may take longer.”

If you’re in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and you show symptoms of the virus, you can request a coronavirus test through the NHS website.

“Do not wait. Ask for the test as soon as you have symptoms,” the NHS states.

However, the NHS adds that there is “very high demand” for tests at present, stating that “we cannot guarantee you will get one” even if you are successful in asking for one. “It depends on how many tests are available each day in different parts of the country.”

There are coronavirus home testing kits available online, such as those being sold by private London health clinic company CityDoc.​

The government launched a partnership with several companies, including Amazon, Boots and the Wellcome Trust, to help increase testing for frontline NHS staff.

On Thursday 2 April, Hancock announced during the daily press conference that the government had set a target of conducting 100,000 tests in England every day by the end of the month.

Announcing a five-point plan to step up testing from the current 10,000 a day, he said: “That is the goal and I am determined that we will get there.”

However, his pledge fell short of the promise recently made by prime minister Boris Johnson, who previously said this number could reach 250,000 tests a day.

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