Ministers hope the AbC-19 lateral flow test will be available for use in a mass screening programme before the end of the year. The new tests have been developed by the UK Rapid Test Consortium (UK-RTC), a partnership between Oxford University and leading UK diagnostics firms including Abingdon Health, based in York.
The partnership was set up by the Government shortly after a consignment of Chinese-made fingerprick tests hailed by Boris Johnson as “game-changers” turned out to be largely useless.
The development of an accurate antibody test is seen as key to helping Britain get back to work.
Scientists believe people who produce antibodies after having coronavirus may develop immunity to catching the virus again, making them safe to return to work.
Dr Ron Daniels, a consultant in critical care at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, says: “If you test positive for antibodies, it’s likely you have a degree of immunity. We’re not sure for how long, and how much, so you shouldn’t stop [social] distancing, but best guess it is likely to be partially protective for at least a few months.”
How accurate is the antibody test?
Dr Chris Hand, the leader of the UK-RTC and chairman of Abingdon Health, revealed that the new UK-made test passed its first major clinical trial last month, involving nearly 300 people and conducted by scientists at Ulster University.
“It was found to be 98.6 per cent accurate, and that’s very good news,” Dr Hand told The Telegraph. “We’ve had two shifts of R&D personnel working day and night, seven days a week. This sort of development programme would normally take a year. We’ve done it in 10 weeks.
“We’re now scaling up with our partners to produce hundreds of thousands of doses every month.”
Whitehall sources warned, however, that scientists are still unsure whether the presence of antibodies means a person is immune to coronavirus and can return to normal life without fear of re-infection.
What happened to the failed antibody tests?
The Government had previously hoped to roll out millions of antibody tests, but supplies from China failed to pass sensitivity and specificity tests.
Ministers will attempt to recoup taxpayers’ money spent on the fingerprick tests after an Oxford University trial found they returned inaccurate results.
That failure was a significant setback because it had been hoped the antibody tests would show who had already built up immunity, therefore offering a swifter route out of lockdown.
In April, Professor Karol Sikora, a private oncologist and Dean of Medicine at the University of Buckingham, validated a test kit using samples from staff at his clinics, which were then verified by a private lab.
Around 6 per cent of staff were found to have had the virus but, crucially, under-40s who had tested positive came back negative, suggesting the test may not be useful for the wider population.
Siemens Healthineers, a German diagnostics and medical imaging firm, also announced on April 23 that it was producing an antibody blood test to identify past coronavirus infections.