With the country in lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe, much focus is being put on the possibility of a home testing kit. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has previously pledged to test 100,000 Britons a day – but how and when will the tests be available to members of the public? Here’s everything you need to know, so far…
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What is a coronavirus home test?
The antibody home test can detect if a person has had coronavirus, and has since recovered. The test, which is carried out using a finger prick device, examines your blood for coronavirus antibodies to see if they have already beaten the virus and gained some immunity to it. It can do this in about 15 minutes. In contrast, the coronavirus swab test that the government currently uses can only tell whether a person has the virus, and not if they have had it and subsequently recovered. These swab tests also take much longer to process results.
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When will they be available?
The plan is that the public will be able to buy coronavirus home tests from Boots and Amazon. So far the government has purchased 3.5 million finger-prick antibody tests, which could radically transform the UK's response to Covid-19. Provisional orders were later placed for a further 17.5 million tests from other firms, including some based in the UK. While this isn’t enough for the entire UK population, it’s thought that NHS staff and key workers will be prioritised, before further tests are made available for mass testing.
Matt Hancock has previously pledged to test 100,000 Britons a day
How reliable are the tests?
In recent days, the likelihood of the tests being universally effective has been questioned, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock stating on Sunday that the tests were not yet “good enough”. Scientists recently confirmed to the Guardian that no test on the market has yet been shown to be sufficiently reliable. Some kits, which claim a more than 90 per cent rate of accuracy, appear to have been tested only in hospital on patients with very significant symptoms. One expert told the Guardian that in reality the sensitivity of the tests was likely to be relatively low and more likely to detect 50 per cent to 60 per cent of those with milder symptoms – the group for whom the tests were intended.
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What if I need a test now?
At the moment, testing is only being carried out at hospitals for those with severe symptoms. Those with minor symptoms are being asked to self-isolate at home, and to call 111 if symptoms worsen.
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What about private testing?
While Public Health England does not recommend buying a home kit, due to their unreliability, there are some available on the market. Private clinics and laboratories are selling them for anything between £120 and £395 per test, including the Private Harley Street Clinic, which came under fire for offering kits for the latter price. In a statement released on Monday, the clinic said it was "pausing" the sale given the government's new pledge to carry out more tests nationwide, but defended its actions, saying it was providing a much-needed service.
The government and related bodies' stance appears to be clear on private testing though. A spokesman for the General Medical Council said: "We expect doctors to be clear about the safety and accuracy of Covid-19 tests, and not to offer or recommend tests that are unproven, clinically unverified and/or otherwise unreliable."
The tests currently being used in UK hospitals are to see if somebody currently has Covid-19, but the government also wants to introduce an antibody test, to see if someone has already had the virus.
Work is currently underway to develop an effective antibody test, with a diagnostics company claiming their product will be able to produce 46,000 results a day. Mologic has said it will start manufacturing its Covid-19 test following validation by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and St George's, University of London. The test has also been sent to Public Health England for formal verification.
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The UK government has previously stated it will not make tests available until they are assured of their accuracy. Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said that 15 of the most promising antibody tests had been tested, but that none were good enough.
It's also unclear at the moment whether the presence of antibodies guarantees you are immune. The World Health Organisation's head of emerging diseases Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said that while these tests measure the level of antibodies in the blood, there is no evidence they can show "that an individual is immune or is protected against re-infection".
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