The UK is in talks with pharmaceutical giant Roche on the large-scale deployment of an anti-coronavirus antibody test with an accuracy rate close to 100%, said Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
The Swiss-based company announced Sunday that it is ready to increase production of its test to “double-digit millions per month” during the month of May for use by healthcare providers worldwide.
It is understood that the test could be used in the UK in a few weeks, helping to paint a picture of the true spread of the deadly virus among the population.
Download the new Independent Premium app
Share the whole story, not just the headlines
It is currently being independently assessed by Public Health England in its laboratory in Porton Down, Wiltshire and initial results are expected by the end of this week.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an emergency authorization for the laboratory test, which has also received approval for use in countries using the European CE marking, including the United Kingdom. .
Speaking at the daily Downing Street Coronavirus briefing, Hancock said there were “very positive” indications on the new test, but acknowledged that the UK had already experienced “false hope” ” In the region.
The health secretary had previously ordered 17.5 million test kits only to find that they did not work.
Hancock said he had donated regular blood samples to help scientists find an antibody test after recovering from an episode of Covid-19 in March.
But he admitted that he was not convinced that his recovery had given him immunity from a second infection, saying that he would still not be happy to enter a crowded room.
Scientists have yet to finalize whether Covid-19 infection provides immunity and, if so, for how long. However, researchers at the South Korean centers for disease control and prevention said on Sunday that they now believe it is impossible for the virus to reactivate in the human body.
Deputy Chief Physician Jonathan Van-Tam said that the “overwhelming majority” of people who recovered from Covid-19 had antibodies in their bloodstream but it was not yet known how long these antibodies would remain.
He said “we haven’t had this disease on the planet in humans for long enough” to find out if those who recovered were immune.
Antibodies produced in response to other human coronaviruses, such as the common cold, “do not necessarily persist for years and years,” he said.
The news of the discussions with Roche came when Mr. Hancock launched a “test, track and trace” pilot program on the Isle of Wight, whose residents are invited to download a smartphone app to identify anyone who was close to a person who tested positive for the disease.
He announced that 288 people who tested positive for the coronavirus died on Monday in the UK within 24 hours to 9 hours. This is the lowest daily total since March 30, but it brought Britain’s total to 28,734, 150 less than Italy to become the second most affected country, behind the states -United.
Professor Van-Tam said the number of cases should drop further before the government can meet its five criteria for relaxing restrictions on social distancing.
And Downing Street has said Boris Johnson may not be able to define his exit strategy on Thursday – the deadline for a six-week lockdown review – as hoped, with the hope that he will set out his thinking on Sunday instead.
The Swiss firm claims that the test – called Elecsys – has a specificity greater than 99.8% and a sensitivity of 100%, which means that it gives no false negative results and only one in 500 false positives.
Group CEO Severin Schwan said, “Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our dedicated colleagues, we are now able to provide high quality antibody testing in large quantities, so that we can support the healthcare systems of world with an important tool to better manage the Covid-19 Health Crisis. “
Antibody tests do not cure the coronavirus and offer no protection against the disease.
Instead, they can detect if a person has already been infected and has antibodies in their system capable of fighting a future infection.
The mass tests will give public health officials a much clearer picture of the number of people who have had Covid-19 than the currently available antigen tests, which only indicate if a patient is currently suffering from the disease.
This will help scientists determine if the crucial reproductive rate, known as R, has dropped below one, which means that each infected person transmits the virus to less than another person.
And this could allow the issuance of “immunity passports” allowing people who are no longer at risk of infection to resume their normal lives.
Chief Physician Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance have repeatedly emphasized that there can be no lifting of lock restrictions as long as R is less than one, to avoid the risk of a resurgence of cases.
Hancock said: “Today Roche, the Swiss global diagnostic company, has made a very positive announcement about the progress of their antibody testing and we are in discussions with them regarding a deployment to very large-scale antibody tests, as well as with others. “
But he added, “There have been false hopes before in antibody testing before, so we will make announcements when we are absolutely ready. “
Asked whether he would be personally prepared to give up social distancing and convinced that his own illness had given him immunity, Mr. Hancock said, “Not yet. Not yet. I sincerely hope that science shows that people who test positive for antibodies have a low risk of transmitting the disease and a low risk of getting it. “