Self-testing at home to find out whether somebody has had Covid-19 is an efficient way to find out if they are safe to return to work, a senior health official has said.
Prof Yvonne Doyle, the medical director of NHS England, told the health select committee that finger-prick home tests would be available very soon. “We expect that to come within a couple of weeks, but I wouldn’t want to promise on that,” she said.
It was “critical to understand what is going on and allow people to return to work” she said. Self-testing was not new and was well understood by the public, with routine tests available such as the pregnancy test. “The intention is to allow people to do as much of this as they validly can. It is by far the most efficient way, if the technology will support it,” she said.
On Wednesday Prof Sharon Peacock, from Public Health England, told MPs on the science and technology committee that a home test to detect antibodies indicating somebody has had Covid-19 was being evaluated this week in Oxford to make sure it worked as well as is claimed and would be available next week. Government advisers later cautioned that the test might not be ready so quickly.
But the health ecretary, Matt Hancock, has said the government has bought 3.5m antibody tests and will buy more.
Governments around the world are all seeking better and faster tests to show whether people have the disease or have had had it and recovered.
Singapore developed an antibody test as early as February. The US Covid-19 co-ordinator, Dr Deborah Birx, has said the US government is interested in it, and private US companies are also developing antibody tests. They include California-based Biomerica, which is selling to Europe and the Middle East, and New York-based Chembio Diagnostics, which is selling to Brazil.
“Some are developed now. We are looking at the ones in Singapore,” Birx said on Monday at a White House press briefing. “We are very quality-oriented. We don’t want false positives.”
UK firms and academics have also developed self-test kits for Covid-19 that are expected to be available to buy in the coming weeks or months.
One cheap test is made by Mologic, a diagnostic test firm based in Bedford. Another kit has been developed by researchers at three UK universities led by Brunel University.
Mologic has produced the first prototypes of an antibody test for Covid-19, building on its experience of developing a rapid test kit for Ebola. Assessment and validation of the test began this week at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and St George’s, University of London.
The company said it would take three to four months before the test is available in the UK and other countries. It will cost £1 in the UK and will be as simple to use as a home pregnancy test but will use saliva or blood rather than urine, with results ready in 10 minutes.
Mologic, which received £1m from the UK government to develop the test, will be able to make 8m kits a year at facilities in the UK and Senegal. In Senegal it will be sold for less than $1.
“These tests could be a game-changer for diagnosis and follow-up of patients both in hospital and in the community, allowing us to detect cases early and isolate patients and their families rapidly,” said Dr Emily Adams, a senior lecturer in diagnostics for infectious disease at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.
The test kit developed by researchers at Brunel University London, Lancaster University and the University of Surrey is based on science evaluated in the Philippines to check chickens for viral infections.
The battery-operated handheld device processes nasal or throat swabs that are inserted into it, and delivers the results within 30 to 45 minutes via a smartphone app. The team has approached UK, US and European regulators for approval and is in talks with 60 manufacturers. It could be available to the public within a few weeks.
The device will be priced at £100 and can test six people at once. The test can detect the virus in individuals who show no symptoms because it recognises the DNA structure of the virus in the samples.