Public should not buy high street coronavirus antibody tests, top NHS official warns

Andy Wells
·Freelance Writer
·4-min read
A medical arranging test tubes with blood samples for COVID-19 antibody testing at hospital in Bangka Belitung Islands, Indonesia, May 16, 2020. Based on Indonesian government data on Saturday, 529 new cases of Covid-19 in the last 24 hours, a total of 17,025 cases of Covid-19 in Indonesia. (Photo by Irwan Aulia Rachman / INA Photo Agency / Sipa USA)
Experts have urged caution over home-based coronavirus antibody tests. (INA Photo Agency/Sipa USA)

A top NHS official has warned the public not to buy coronavirus antibody tests from high street stores over questions about their reliability.

NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the tests show whether or not someone has had COVID-19 but it is not yet clear whether this means people will not contract the virus again.

Superdrug became the first high street retailer to offer a £69 DIY kit to test for antibodies, where users need to take a blood sample at home which is sent off to an accredited laboratory for testing.

However, Powis urged “caution” over the home testing kits.

Superdrug is selling antibody tests for £69. (Superdrug)
Superdrug is selling antibody tests for £69. (Superdrug)

He told the daily Downing Street press briefing: "I would caution against using any tests that might be made available without knowing quite how good those tests are.

“Public Health England (PHE) as I say is evaluating them for the NHS so I would caution people against being tempted to have those tests."

Powis would not be drawn on whether people would be given access to antibody tests for free on the NHS in the future.

He added: "PHE have been evaluating the new antibody tests – the commercial tests that are becoming available – and I have most confidence in that evaluation process, because I think that gives the stamp that we need in order to roll these types on throughout the NHS.

"So as those types are evaluated and become available they will be rolled out through health and social care settings.

"Initially their use will be in those settings, and also for surveillance within the community so that we get some information on how many people in the population may have been infected by the virus.

Powis also said that experts are yet to determine whether having having antibodies would protect someone contacting coronavirus.

He added: "I think one other point to make about the antibody test, the antibody test shows you that you have had the virus.

“Once you have the virus the body's immune system develops antibodies against it and it is those antibodies that are detected typically a number of weeks after you've had the virus so it tells you you've had it.

"What we don't absolutely know at the moment is whether having antibodies, and having the antibodies that are tested in those tests, means that you won't get the virus again.

"I wouldn't want people to think just because you test positive for the antibody that it necessarily means that you can do something different in terms of social distancing or the way you behave.

"Because until we are absolutely sure about the relationship between the positive antibody tests and immunity, I think we as scientists would say we need to tread cautiously.”

When asked whether everyone in the country will get access to an antibody test via the NHS, Powis said: "When I say it is the early phase of these tests and where we will use them first, is in health, and probably social care settings for patients, obviously, but also for staff in those settings where it is most important that we understand about infection.”

Screen grab of National Medical Director at NHS England, Professor Stephen Powis during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19).
Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, during the coronavirus media briefing in Downing Street, London. (COVID-19).

Superdrug said it was "confident" in the accuracy and reliability of the test, saying it has a sensitivity of 97.5%, which means that it will detect positive antibodies the vast majority of the time.

Commenting on the availability of the test from Superdrug, as well as one released by healthcare company Babylon for the same price, Professor Gino Martini, chief scientific officer at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, said: "Any antibody test at present can only provide a partial picture.

"The real issue is that no-one knows the level of immunity that is conferred by having antibodies to coronavirus, how long it might last, and if you can become reinfected.

“We need much more information and data on immunity before we can understand the importance of having antibodies to the virus."

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