NHS and care staff will get access to Covid antibody tests next week

NHS and care home staff will get access to coronavirus antibody tests from next week amid plans to test hundreds of thousands of health workers to see if they have had the virus

  • Hundreds of thousands of frontline NHS and care workers to be offered the tests
  • Tests scour the blood for antibodies, produced by body in response to COVID-19
  • Presumed that presence of antibodies provides degree of immunity to the virus
  • But experts say positive tests should not be seen as a ‘green light’ to reduce PPE
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

NHS and care home staff will get access to coronavirus antibody tests from next week, ministers are expected to announce today.

Hundreds of thousands of frontline health workers will be offered the tests, which detect if someone has ever been infected with the disease.

The tests scour the blood for antibodies, produced by the immune system in response to COVID-19, which is thought provide some immunity against reinfection.

With most viral infections, the presence of antibodies reduces or removes the risk of reinfection, but this has not yet been proven with coronavirus.

Experts say positive tests should not simply be seen as a ‘green light’ to reduce PPE or other protections for staff.

The Roche test, called Elecsys (pictured), produces results in a laboratory and is said to be 100 per cent accurate

Prime Minister Boris Johnson or Health Secretary Matt Hancock will announce the news at Number 10’s press briefing tonight, according to the Guardian.

Priority will be given to frontline hospital staff in coronavirus specific wards, as well as ICU and A&E departments.

WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST?

Unlike tests to diagnose diseases, antibody tests show who has been infected and recovered.

The body makes antibodies in response to many illnesses and infections, including other coronaviruses. New blood tests are being developed to identify antibodies unique to SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the new coronavirus.

The tests look for two kinds of antibodies: immunoglobulin M (IgM) and G (IgG). The body quickly produces IgM antibodies for its initial attack against infections. It makes IgG antibodies more slowly and retains them longer; IgG antibodies suggest possible immunity. 

HOW CAN ANTIBODY TESTS HELP END LOCKDOWNS?

Antibody tests can help calculate what portion of the population has already been infected, as well as whether infections were mild or severe.

Governments and companies could use antibody tests to determine who would most likely be safe to return to work and public interactions, and whether it is safe to lift stay-at-home orders all at once in some regions or in stages based on infection risk.

People with negative antibody tests or very low antibody levels would likely have higher risk of infection than people with high antibody levels.

DO ANTIBODIES TO THE NEW CORONAVIRUS CONFER IMMUNITY?

While antibodies to many infectious diseases typically confer some level of immunity, whether that is the case with this unique coronavirus is not yet known.

And how strong immunity might be, or how long it might last in people previously infected, is not clear. With some diseases like measles the immunity can be lifelong. With others, immunity can wane over time.

Scientists cannot know with certainty that reinfection is not possible until further research.

Antibody tests could inform not just lockdown exits, but the best approach to treatments and vaccines.

These staff members will be monitored by scientists to see whether they fall ill again and paint a clearer picture of the protection antibodies provide.  

Dr Claudia Paoloni, president of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, urged caution to those who test positive for antibodies

She told the newspaper: ‘As we learn more about the role of antibodies, this could open the door to different ways of working and reduce the level of risk to NHS staff by allocating those who have had the virus to care for Covid-19 patients. 

‘But we must be clear that huge uncertainties remain while we do not know the level and length of any immunity which antibodies will offer.

‘The new test’s arrival should not simply be seen as a green light to reduce PPE and other protections for NHS staff who test positive.’

Last week the Government purchased ‘100 per cent accurate’ antibody tests from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche and American firm Abbott.

This week Public Health England (PHE) also validated tests made by the Welsh company Ortho Clinical Diagnostics. All three devices are laboratory-based and can take up to a day to produce results.  

It’s unclear which antibody test will be used from Monday, or if it will be a mixture of all three.

Ortho Clinical Diagnostics’ managing director said the machines can run 150 tests an hour.

The Welsh firms’ test is the only UK-validated device which is manufactured in Britain. Roche and Abbott both produce their devices overseas, which can cause delays in the supply chain.

As well as detecting which healthcare staff have previously been infected, antibody tests are considered key to easing lockdown because they paint the clearest picture about how widespread COVID-19 is in the community.

The true size of Britain’s outbreak is a mystery because health chiefs abandoned a mass-testing regime early on in the crisis. 

No home ‘pregnancy-test’ kits have yet been approved, despite promises in March that one would be available.

Known as the ‘have you had it’ tests, antibody tests reveal whether someone has been infected with COVID-19 in the past and recovered from it, but scientists are still unsure whether this means they are protected from catching the virus again.

Therefore, some say there is ‘no point’ paying for a test because it is still not clear what the results mean.

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