Roche CEO calls some Covid-19 antibody tests a “disaster” and questions ethics of decision makers

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Severin Schwan, Chairman and CEO of Roche Holding AG.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Some blood tests marketed to tell people if they have had the new coronavirus are a “disaster,” Roche chief executive officer Severin Schwan said Wednesday as he prepares to launch the manufacturer’s antibody test. next month.

Roche’s diagnostic activities left the shadow of its main drug unit during the pandemic, as the Swiss pharmaceutical giant confirmed its sales and profit prospects for 2020 amid growing demand for Covid-19 tests .

Countries around the world are hoping that such blood tests – designed to show whether people at risk for the disease have developed antibodies that are believed to offer some immunity – will guide efforts to restart their economies and keep healthcare workers safe.

A false false positive result could lead to the false conclusion that someone has immunity. In developing its test, Schwan said, Roche examined the reliability of certain existing products before rejecting them.

” It is a disaster. These tests are worthless, or of little use, “Schwan told reporters during a conference call. “Some of these companies, I’m telling you, are ethically very questionable for going out with these kinds of things.”

Schwan said there are about 100 such tests offered, including finger prick tests that provide a quick result. The Basel-based company declined to specify the competing tests it had studied, but said it did not refer to tests performed by established test companies.

Roche also performs separate tests to determine if a person has an active coronavirus infection, with a sample taken via a swab in the nasal passages.

Sales of these tests helped boost first-quarter sales in its molecular diagnostic business by 29% in the first three months of the year.

Lovers in garages

In contrast, Roche’s planned antibody test is based on intravenous blood samples taken by a nurse or doctor.

Schwan did not release figures on the “specificity” of his test or the number of false positives expected, but promised that it would be reliable because Roche had managed to find the antibody produced by the body after exposure to the new virus .

“This is really what matters,” he said. “Each type of amateur could produce an antibody test. We could both do it overnight in the garage. This is not the problem. “

“The question is, does it really work?” And for that, you have to do tests and validation, ”he added.

Abbott Laboratories also announced last week that it will begin shipping a new coronavirus blood test similar to that of Roche by June. Like Roche’s test, Abbott’s test would be launched in accordance with the recently relaxed US Food and Drug Administration rules for coronavirus testing.

Roche has confirmed its current sales growth forecasts for 2020 in the low to medium single-digit percentage range, with earnings per share growth corresponding to that after the first quarter sales increased by 7% to 15 , 1 billion Swiss francs ($ 15.57 billion).

Although most of Roche’s coronavirus activity has been focused on testing, she is also investigating whether her old arthritis medication Actemra will help critically ill patients with severe immune system reactions, also called storms. cytokines. The drug has already been deployed for such cases on a limited basis, including in China.

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