Arrival of ‘game-changer’ antibody tests could be delayed until June causing prolonged UK lockdown

Seventeen and a half million coronavirus antibody tests promised by ministers are unlikely to be ready until June, potentially extending the lockdown by weeks, it has emerged.

Industry leaders commissioned by the government to produce home testing kits have told The Telegraph they are “mystified” by suggestions the technology will be imminently available to the public.

A blood test which detects whether a person has already contracted Covid-19 – as opposed to the antigen test which flags a current infection – is considered by many experts to be vital for easing the restrictions that have paralysed Britain.

Only last week, senior health officials said the finger-prick blood tests could become widely available via Amazon or Boots “within weeks”.

Boris Johnson has described the kits as a potential “game-changer”.

However, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, appeared to distance himself from the ambition on Friday, suggesting in one interview that antibody tests will not necessarily form part of the overall target of 100,000 daily coronavirus tests he announced on Thursday.

Now, the medical director of a biotech company, given £1 million by the Department of Health to pioneer an antibody test, has urged the public to be patient.

Dr Joe Fitchett, from the Milton Keynes firm Mologic, said its own rapid diagnostic test would only be available from June at the earliest, and expressed scepticism that other kits could be ready for use sooner than that.

“That’s very fast to produce something from a prototype,” he said.

“Anyone can produce rubbish prototypes, as seems to have happened in Spain, unfortunately – but it has to work.

“It’s a real challenge to make sure you have enough of what you need for the country.”

The comments come as questions grow over the nine candidate tests currently being backed by the government.

At Thursday’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock revealed some tests under development have showed a 75 per cent false-negative rate.

“Approving tests that don’t work is dangerous and I will not do it,” he said.

However, last night the Department of Health declined to say whether this applied to any of the nine candidate tests prioritised by ministers, none of which have yet secured approval.

The government is anxious to avoid another perceived climbdown, after it was forced to admit that 3.5 million antibody testing kits it announced it had “secured” last week have not actually been purchased, merely ordered subject to validation, which has not yet been achieved.

The Telegraph understands that ministers have become significantly less bullish about their chances of quickly securing a viable antibody test over the past fortnight, as other countries have been forced to reject inaccurate kits.

This week Spain said it was returning 640,000 of rapid testing kits made in China after it emerged they only had a 30 per cent accuracy rate, rather than the 80 per cent expected.

The Spanish government said it had assumed that the swabs – secured from a domestic supplier – were of sufficient quality because they had a CE marking on them, indicating they met EU standards.

According to British scientists, a reluctance by government officials to share crucial information with the various different groups working on tests is slowing progress in the UK.

A spokesman at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which is carrying out separate validation tests on a number of products, including the Mologic antibody test in a trial of 400 health workers, said: “The government is not telling anybody which tests they have purchased so we wouldn’t know whether we are testing their tests.

“The government has said it has bought millions of antibody tests but we don’t know who has tested those tests.

“They have not told us what tests they have bought and we cannot find that out. We don’t know.”

Pressure on ministers increased on Friday as authorities in Italy announced they are about to commence antibody testing in one of the worst hit regions.

Officials in the Veneto region, which includes Venice, plan to test 100,000 doctors and nurses and then roll out the tests to the general population.

Experts there are using a test that costs around €10 and delivers a result in an hour.

Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, said a positive test would give a person an “immunity licence” which would enable them to resume their normal lives.

Berlin has also announced it is planning to bring in ‘immunity certificates’ as part of preparations for the country to cease its lockdown, and British health officials have also indicated a similar scheme may be tried in the UK

The accuracy of the Italian test, made by Snibe Diagnostics, is not known, however the results obtained so far were “very satisfactory”, according to Mario Plebani and Giuseppe Lippi, the heads of analysis laboratories in Padova and Verona.

Meanwhile the Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s most advanced healthcare facilities, has also announced it is close to unveiling an accurate antibody test in concert with the University of Minnesota.

One of the key advantages of antibody testing is that it can be done at home, officials have said.

However, Dr Fitchett questioned the possibility of sufficient numbers of people being able to operate the kits, and whether enough people will be able to access them via Amazon.

“I can’t imagine getting tests to the most vulnerable people that way,” he said.

“We will still need the NHS to make sure there’s no inappropriate ordering of tests. And initially I imagine we would need to have health professionals administering the tests.”

Speaking for a second consecutive evening at the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said that, so far, the government had only spent relatively small sums of money purchasing sample tests in order to validate.

He added: “What matters here is that, [with] these tests, if we can get them and if they’re accurate and we’ve got the confidence in them, that we can use them, the positive impact that will have on people knowing with confidence that they can get back to normal life more quickly will vastly outweigh any cost. 

“So of course cost is a consideration, but frankly, getting a test that works is worth more than just money.”

A key question which government experts hope mass antibody testing could answer is the proportion of the population that has already contracted Covid-19.

Antigen testing among the population has so far hardly taken place, and it is believed that many people can get the virus without developing symptoms.

Earlier this week, University of Oxford scientists claimed that half of the UK population might already have caught Covid-19.

If and when it turns out that a very large proportion of people have done so, and assuming scientists are confident that the resulting antibodies confer immunity from re-infection, this could amount to “herd immunity”, whereby even where new cases do emerge, they would be unlikely spread.

On Friday night Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, declined to estimate the true number of Covid-19 cases.

“There will be further cases out there, people who are isolating in accordance with the guidelines, who have Covid-19, who we have not counted in the official statistics,” he said.

“How large that is, I wouldn’t like to speculate.”

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