Hopes were rekindled last night for a mass testing program that could pave the way for the closure of the coronavirus.
After weeks of slow progress and false dawns, signs were finally emerging that testing should accelerate in the coming days.
Leading health tech companies and top academics yesterday pledged to help the government meet its ambitious goal of testing 100,000 people every day by the end of the month.
In a day of major advances:
- The American giant Thermo Fisher Scientific has promised to produce thousands of “antigen” test kits – the type that diagnoses if someone currently has the virus;
- Academics from Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge each unveiled rapid test equipment that can process virus samples without using laboratories;
- British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said it would have a validated antibody test in a month which could be delivered on a large scale by the end of May. Antibody tests indicate if anyone has countries like Germany, which has tested more than 70,000 a day.
The government has previously identified nine companies that can provide antibody tests – and has said it can order up to 17.5 million kits.
The IKEA store in Gateshead, where a coronavirus testing site for NHS staff has been set up in the store parking lot, with IKEA saying “We are extremely proud of the NHS”
Matt Hancock (photo) called on businesses and universities to help the UK meet its target of 100,000 tests per day. The call has been met by big business and the University of Cambridge
But this week, officials admitted that none of the tests had worked. The development of a functional antibody test by a large pharmaceutical company is therefore a huge boost.
Experts believe that, if widely used, it could potentially quickly lift social distancing measures.
Professor Paul Hunter, expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia, said last night: “If we are able to deploy a good quality antibody test and find that a substantial proportion of the population is immune, we can also relax the current restrictions knowing that the infection would not spread as quickly. “
Last week, Secretary of Health Matt Hancock called on businesses and universities to help the country reach its goal of 100,000 tests a day. So far, the UK has not tested more than 14,000 people in a single day – a figure much lower than that of countries like Germany, which tested more than 70,000 a day.
A sample is dropped out of a car window into a test kit drop-off bin at a driving test center at the Cardiff City stadium
Hancock has set up a “test task force” of more than 100 companies, but solid progress was made only yesterday. AstraZeneca, the University of Cambridge and GlaxoSmithKline have joined forces for a test facility in Cambridge.
Tom Keith-Roach of AstraZeneca UK said the team is now confident to provide an accurate antibody test in the coming weeks.
He explained: “We are working to deliver a validated test at the beginning of May which we could then increase at the end of the month. “
The team is also working on antigen tests – which will cover 1,000 to 2,000 daily tests by mid-April and aim to “gradually increase” to 30,000 in the first week of May. Keith-Roach added, “I see an extraordinary kind of rapprochement, a collective effort on the part of all the stakeholders involved in implementing these solutions on behalf of the government and the NHS. “
Mark Stevenson of Thermo Fisher Scientific said his company could cause the government to hit 100,000 antigen tests a day.
Meanwhile, Imperial College London announced yesterday the development of a laboratory-free Covid-19 test that provides results in just over an hour.
The government has already obtained 10,000 from DnaNudge’s Lab-in-Cartridge test in order to get much more if it turns out to be a success.
Last night, a government adviser said he was very confident that the target of 100,000 tests per day would be reached in the next three weeks.