On Wednesday, Professor John Newton of Public Health England admitted that none of the tests tested so far were sufficiently accurate.
“We do not expect to have antibody tests by the end of April,” Newton told members of the select science and technology committee. “We are not counting on antibody tests to achieve this goal.
“We were optimistic that a number of companies were offering us these rapid antibody tests and hoped that they would be suitable for the intended use. They all work to some degree, but are not good enough to count. It was felt that it was better to develop a better antibody test before deploying it. “
Without an antibody test, experts believe it will be difficult for the government to reach its target of 100,000 per day to test patients, NHS staff and key workers such as caregivers, even with a massive effort from from laboratories and the biomedical industry.
“It will be a stretch,” said Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate who heads the Francis Crick Institute in London, which has been turned into a test laboratory.
The UK currently performs around 14,000 swab tests per day to confirm if patients currently have Covid-19, diagnostic tests that take time and need to be treated in the laboratory.
While optimism about the potential usefulness of rapid finger prick antibody tests was still high, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that the government had purchased 3.5 million and said more late that he had ordered 17.5 million more.
The UK will now try to get a refund, said Kathy Hall, director of Covid-19 testing strategy at the Department of Health.
“We are currently working with companies to cancel orders and get the money back if possible,” she told the committee. No country has a valid antibody test, she said.
Newton said he was encouraged that British pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca was working on a test and was confident he could have one available in May. “The people who do it talk about this type of deadline,” he said.
Hancock held a conference call with industry leaders on Wednesday to urge them to develop antibody tests, in the same way that he had asked for help from industry to make ventilators.
Antibody tests can identify who has recovered from the virus and acquired some immunity, and could therefore return to work safely. They are particularly important for doctors, nurses and caregivers and, at a later stage in the epidemic, will allow other key workers, such as teachers, to return to work.
Edward Argar, Minister of Health, defended the position of the United Kingdom after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said there were lessons to be learned from Germany, which is testing much more of people.
“I would absolutely expect him to say that we need to look at what other countries have done that has had a really positive impact,” Argar told Sky News. “But I would like to go back to his warnings in which he also said that there are a whole host of factors explaining why the death rate in Germany currently seems lower. “
A shortage of blood samples from people who have recovered from Covid-19 is also delaying the development of an antibody test in the UK, he said. Companies working on the tests need convalescent blood samples to develop the tests and verify their accuracy.
Doris-Ann Williams, executive director of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, said: “Access to patient samples has been a long-standing problem for the industry and is highlighted now when companies desperately need it.
“We have to find a quick process to allow access, otherwise we can never go ahead with development and validation.”
The shortage affects research in all areas, from government to universities and biotechnology companies. One reason is that patients recovered with long-term antibodies to the virus are only emerging, as the epidemic is still in its infancy in the UK.
Professor John Bell, immunologist and Regius Chair of Medicine at Oxford, said, “People can have two weeks of illness and then three weeks to develop this antibody response, but if you look back about five weeks, there was hardly anyone in Britain with the disease. “