With pressure growing on the government to forge an exit plan out of the current lockdown, antibody tests have been regularly cited by ministers and officials as a means to return to some form of normality. Boris Johnson says a home testing kit which would identify whether an individual has suffered from the disease – and therefore has some form of immunity – would be 'a game changer'. The government has ordered millions of such tests on the condition that they work.
However, news today from an academic advising the government on antibody testing makes clear that those hoping for a quick resolution are to be left disappointed. Professor Sir John Bell, of Oxford University, advises the government on life sciences. Writing on the university website, he says there's a problem: none of the tests the government has ordered meet the required standards:
'None of the tests we have validated would meet the criteria for a good test as agreed with the MHRA. This is not a good result for test suppliers or for us.'
He says the UK is not alone in this problem – both Spain and Germany have experienced similar issues:
'Interestingly we are not the only ones who having difficulty identifying commercial tests that work in a home test kit format. The Spanish apparently returned test kits that were not working, and the Germans who are developing their own sensitive kits believe they are three months away from getting these available and validated. Not test has been acclaimed by health authorities as having the necessary characteristics for screening people accurately for protective immunity.'
Bell concludes by saying that finding a mass test that meets standards 'should be achievable' – but doing so is going to take 'at least a month':
'What next? We will of course continue to look for a test that meets the criteria of an acceptable test. There is a point in evaluating these first-generation tests where we need to stop and consider our options. We effectively need an Elisa on a membrane, with the same sensitivity and specificity that can be used at home. That should be achievable, and the government will be working with suppliers both new and old to try and deliver this result so we can scale up antibody testing for the British public. This will take at least a month.'
This serves as another reminder of the difficulties the government faces when it comes to finding a route out of the current lockdown.