The UK government will start rolling out 10 million antibody tests in Britain next week, in what has been called a “game changer” in managing the coronavirus.
The health secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the deal had been agreed with Swiss drugmaker Roche (ROG.SW) and US drugmaker Abbott (ABT) in the government’s daily televised coronavirus briefing on Thursday.
“These tell you if you have had the virus, and have developed antibodies in response that might help you to fight the virus in future,” he said.
Hancock said he could still not say those who tested positive were certainly immune however. But he said the tests would significantly boost understanding of the spread of the virus and the risks it poses in Britain.
He also said trials had begun of a separate COVID-19 swab test by the UK company Optigene, showing if users currently have the virus in less than 20 minutes. He said these would be rolled out as fast as possible if successful.
The minister added that a study in London found 17% of participants tested positive for antibodies, indicating they had previously contracted the virus, and at least 5% had tested positive in another national study.
The antibody tests will be rolled out from next week in a “phased way,” with health and care staff, patients and residents to be eligible first to see if they have had COVID-19 already. Each devolved administration will be able to decide how to use the tests.
Hancock said the announcement marked an “important milestone,” adding: “History has shown that understanding an enemy is fundamental to defeating it.”
The Roche tests received approval from the European Union last month, while the US Food and Drug Administration gave them an emergency use authorisation on 2 May.
Public Health England (PHE) also then said last week that scientists at its Porton Down facility had carried out an independent evaluation of the Roche test. A junior minister has called such tests a “game changer.”