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How could the new coronavirus antibody tests work?

How could the new coronavirus antibody tests work?

Published at 4:36pm 25th March 2020. (Updated at 7:57pm 25th March 2020)

Millions of people could soon have access to new 15-minute coronavirus testing kits, as part of government plans.

On Wednesday, the director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England, Professor Sharon Peacock, said millions of the kits have been ordered and could be available to the public in days.

England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has made it clear the tests are still being evaluated and they will only be used if they are found to be accurate.

He stressed frontline NHS workers would need the tests first so they could get back to work if they have had already had the virus.

But what are the new test kits and could they make a difference?

What is the new test?

It will be able to identify if someone had the infection previously by showing if they have antibodies for COVID-19.

The human body produces antibodies to fight infection, so by measuring antibodies in the blood, the test can detect whether the individual has already been infected.

Public Health England (PHE) says this type of testing will allow individuals, including NHS workers, to return to work and help to refine estimates of how the virus has spread across the UK.

It could also identify people who contracted the virus without showing any, or very mild, symptoms.

During the daily press briefing on Wednesday, the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it is "important to find out who has had the virus asymptomatically".

What does the test involve?

The tests look similar to pregnancy tests and will require a blood prick.

Prof Peacock explained: "You prick your finger like a diabetic would, then get a drop of blood and put it on a filter paper and then run some liquid to make that blood run into the test zone."

Some people will be asked to have a second blood test, checked with a "gold standard" test, to ensure the kits are working properly.

How can I get hold of it?

People will be able to order the new test on Amazon, or they could take it at high street branches such as Boots, according to Prof Peacock.

However Boots has made it clear that it is not currently stocking the test in its stores.

One possible model is that the test is ordered via Amazon and performed at home before being sent back for results.

Who will have access to the new test?

This test will initially be used to find out what proportion of the population get the virus without showing symptoms.

Another priority is to work out which NHS workers are very likely to be immune.

Prof Whitty said that once we have gone through these "critical uses", then the test will be spread out to the general population.

PHE says it expects to test around 1,500 people a week at first.

Why hasn't it been introduced already?

PHE says it has to be sure first that the tests "work as they are claimed to do" and they are still being evaluated.

"Once they have been tested this week and the bulk of tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community," said Prof Peacock.

Prof Whitty has warned the tests must pass the evaluation stage first as "bad tests are worse than no tests".

What testing is available currently?

The tests being used at the moment can only show if someone currently has COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Prof Whitty said only those in hospital will be routinely tested.

Prof Whitty said it was "no longer necessary for us to identify every case", despite criticism from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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Some drive-through testing has been introduced in places including Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, but the main focus has been on those in hospital.

People suffering "mild symptoms", including a fever and new continuous cough, have been told to self-isolate for a week rather than ask to be tested.

However the government has said in the last few days that it plans to ramp up its testing.

Between 5,000 to 6,000 people are currently being tested per day, but this is expected to increase to 25,000 tests a day within four weeks.

If I get the new test and I'm confirmed positive, can I stop social distancing?

It is widely believed that having COVID-19 makes people immune to the disease, or that if they get it a second time, they are no longer able to spread it.

Prof Chris Whitty said: "Once we have these, the key thing for - in the first case healthcare workers - and then other workers and members of society, we'll be able to say to somebody, you've had this virus, you're not likely to get it again at least in the immediate term, and now we can be confident you can return to work and now we can be confident you don't need to be taking some of the precautions you've been taking to date."

What will happen if we start mass testing?

WHO has insisted that testing citizens should be the "backbone" of every government's response, with countries urged to "test, test, test" every suspected case.

"You cannot fight a fire blindfolded, and we cannot stop this pandemic if we don't know who is infected," WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said.

Some countries which have used aggressive testing, including South Korea and Germany, have seen lower death rates.

More testing also means authorities can pick up on asymptomatic cases, helping them to identify virus hotspots and what percentage of cases do not show symptoms.

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