Coronavirus: Can I get a home testing kit and what is an antibody test?

Sabrina Barr

Earlier this month, the NHS outlined plans to run 10,000 tests for coronavirus a day amid the pandemic.

While Boris Johnson recently told the House of Commons this number would increase to 25,000, newly-released figures show that on Monday 23 March, 5,605 tests were conducted.

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

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.

The current Covid-19 test can only ascertain whether a patient is currently suffering from the virus, not if they have had it before and recovered.

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 has now bought three and a half 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”.

“We expect people not to be able to catch it, except in very exceptional circumstances, for a second time,” he said.

“Our new testing facility in Milton Keynes opens today, and we therefore are on the ramp up of the testing numbers.”

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, says that the antibody test “is now being trialled”, explaining that “this will inevitably take time to consistently reach the NHS frontline”.

The implementation of the proposed antibody test will in turn enable NHS staff to know if they have been in contact with the virus and return to work following self-isolation.

A Public Health England director recently said that 15-minute home test kits, that can determine whether a person has or has had the coronavirus, will 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 will be prioritised for tests once they are available.

Are antibody tests already 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.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York City recently 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 his daily press conference earlier this week, 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.

The British government has not yet found an antibody test that is "good enough to use", health secretary Hancock said on Friday 3 April.

Hancock also admitted that the tests are unlikely to become widely available until the end of April.

“I get pressure on this. I get people saying ‘oh come on, it may not be perfectly accurate but can’t we just use it," he stated.

“The test problem is that with a test that is not of high quality, you end up giving false assurance.”

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.

Currently, tests for the strain of the coronavirus are only conducted on patients if their state of health requires them to be cared for in hospital.

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?

It was recently reported that home testing kits for coronavirus could become available in a “couple of weeks”.

Professor Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, stated 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.”

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

On the government’s website, it states that it is “urgently analysing the reliability of home testing kits that do not need labs”.

“These could be a game-changer — if they are reliable,” it adds.

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 said two weeks ago the aim was to conduct 250,000 tests a day.

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