An effective antibody test for the coronavirus will take “at least a month” to develop for public use, said a senior scientist.
The British government has already ordered 17.5 million kits from nine different manufacturers in the hopes that they will work.
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Authorities have suggested that Covid-19 checks – which reveal whether people have been infected and are now resistant – will be deployed this month.
Britons who test positive could then “confidently return to work”, helping to end the UK’s strict lock-in restrictions.
However, Professor Sir John Bell, who heads the Oxford team to assess them, says none of the controls measure up.
And warned that a work test will not be available before May at the earliest.
Boris Johnson hailed the checks as a potential “game changer” in mid-March and said they were fast “on the right track”.
And officials from Public Health England last month suggested it was “a few days away.”
However, Professor Bell, who is responsible for evaluating them, said none had been found to be accurate enough for mass public testing.
He said British scientists are now working with manufacturers to improve their reliability.
But Professor Bell, Covid Scientific Advisory Panel and Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: “It will take at least a month. “
He added, “Several tests have been provided for evaluation … Unfortunately, the tests that we have reviewed to date have not been successful.
“None of the tests we validated would meet the criteria for a good test. This is not a good result for the test providers or for us. “
“Not a good result”
Professor Bell said that “large-scale testing” is “crucial to bringing us back to our normal lives in the coming months.”
In a blog post, Professor Bell wrote, “Part of the government’s strategy has been to use home test kits to allow people to test and see if they have long-term immunity and can so return confidently to work. Creating home test kits is not easy, however. “
Although some tests were found to be 95% accurate in patients who were very sick, they were less accurate in patients who had recovered from milder symptoms.
Professor Bell said other countries face similar problems, with Spain returning the tests because they did not work.
He added, “We are not alone in having difficulty identifying commercial tests that work in a home test kit format.
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“The Spanish apparently returned test kits that were not working, and the Germans, who are developing their own sensitive kits, believe they have three months to make them available and validated. “
Downing Street has said it will seek reimbursements from companies that cannot improve government-ordered failed antibody tests.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said, “So far, no test has proven to be good enough to be used.
“We continue to work with test companies, we are in constant dialogue with them and we give them feedback when their products do not meet the required standards.”
England’s top doctor also said that effective antibody tests could now take months.
I am confident that we will develop antibody tests
Professor Chris Whitty
Speaking at an information meeting in Downing Street, Professor Chris Whitty said, “I am very confident that we will develop antibody tests, whether in the laboratory or on test strips during the course of the next period. I’m very confident.
“The fact that we did not get highly effective products when we first went into the first things that people produced is not particularly surprising to anyone who understands how tests are developed.
“I expect that these will continue to potentially improve on the gauge side and certainly on the lab side, which will be available in due course via the NHS over time. “
The chief medical officer said the tests – which show if someone had the virus and are now immune – will be more effective “later in the epidemic”.
He said: “At this point, we expect that a relatively small proportion of the population will likely have antibodies. “
Professor Newton of Public Health England, who was appointed to supervise the tests last week, revealed that antibody tests purchased in China were only able to accurately identify immunity in severely ill people sick.
said: “The test developed in China has been validated on seriously ill patients with a very high viral load, generating a large amount of antibodies …
“So we want to use the test in the context of a wider range of infection levels, including people who are fairly mildly infected.
“So for our purposes, we need a test that works better than some of these other tests. “
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Despite this, government scientists hope to work with companies to improve the performance of the antibody tests they currently have – and Professor Newton said he was “optimistic”, one of the antibody tests would achieve in the coming months.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted on Friday that the government still does not have a reliable antibody kit it can use – despite promises to step up testing by the end of the month.
He said that several of the antibody kits failed the precision tests – with three out of four positive results missed.