Germany will give 100,000 people coronavirus antibody tests in the next few weeks as part of a major trial to get millions of workers out of lockdown.
The mass study will allow officials to determine who has already caught the deadly infection and is therefore immune to being struck down again.
British health chiefs have still yet to approve coronavirus antibody tests, despite the promises that the DIY kits would be ready for use by mid-April.
Labour’s shadow health secretary last night urged Number 10 to follow Germany’s approach and roll-out antibody tests to get a grip on the outbreak.
Jonathan Ashworth said: ‘Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach.’
Public Health England’s medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle last night said the 17.5million DIY antibody tests the Government had ordered were still being evaluated.
Her comments came after one manufacturer of a finger-prick kit warned it may take six weeks for them to have any antibody tests ready for Britons to use at home.
It comes as ministers today are facing fresh fury over the lack of mass coronavirus swab testing today.
Each day Germany analyses around 100,000 PCR tests, which are throat swabs that pick up active infections not historical ones spotted by finger-prick antibody tests.
In comparison, the rate in the UK is ten times lower, which experts have blamed on ‘organisation’ rather than a shortage of facilities.
But there are fears that a global shortage of chemicals used to analyse the tests in the laboratory could also be hampering efforts to scale up the regime.
Cologne’s city centre is deserted amid the lockdown in Germany to contain the coronavirus
CHEMICAL REAGENTS: NECESSARY FOR TESTING BUT IN HIGH GLOBAL DEMAND
A global shortage of the chemicals needed to produce coronavirus tests has emerged as another setback in the UK’s plans to test more people.
Industry bosses say chemical reagents that are used in the test are in short supply around the world as countries have scrambled to test their citizens for COVID-19.
Lab tests for the coronavirus work by regrowing a patient’s DNA in a lab and examining it to find traces of genetic material left behind by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
For this to work, technicians need a chemical called a reagent to trigger the chemical reaction which starts the process.
There are various types of reagents which can be used in a COVID-19 test, supplied by different companies around the world, but they are in high demand everywhere. They are not unique to coronavirus and are the same reagents used in tests for illnesses such as flu.
The US has 10 different types of reagent listed in the priority list by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not clear whether the UK is using reagents manufactured on home soil or importing them.
Some NHS labs have now resorted to make their own in ‘home brew’ situations so they can test patients, The Times reported.
Officials are now scrambling to see if there are alternatives to their first choice, according to the newspaper, and are also trying to shore up supplies of swabs, which are vital for tests.
CEO of pharmaceutical company Roche, Severin Schwan, said ‘demand is outstripping supply’ for the reagents. ‘Widespread testing is simply not possible,’ he added.
While the Professional Association of Laboratory Medics in Germany said: ‘The materials required for testing – sample kits, materials for extracting samples, and reagents – are becoming scarce’.
The Australian Medical Association sounded the alarm there two weeks ago, when it said some parts of the government had failed to stockpile the right reagents, The Guardian reported.
It said global demand was ‘exceeding supply’ and that ‘there are particular concerns around supplies of swabs and DNA extraction kits’.
BioSure, one of the firms in talks with the Government to make 17.5million home-kits, has been asked to get ready to ramp up production.
But no DIY antibody tests have been approved yet, meaning the company is holding off on mass-producing the kits in case stringent medical tests fail.
Brigette Bard, BioSure’s chief executive, warned the delay could mean it won’t have any kits ready for Britons to use in the comfort of their own home until mid-May.
Germany is also planning to bring in ‘immunity certificates’ as part of preparations for the country to cease its lockdown.
The team plans to test 100,000 people at a time from mid-April, issuing documents to those who have built up an immunity.
They will then use the information gleaned from the testing to assess how and when the lockdown should conclude.
Researchers will utilise the data as they advise the government on when schools will be re-opened and mass gatherings permitted once again.
Germany is also planning to test 200,000 people a day for the coronavirus, in hope of replicating South Korea’s success in slowing the outbreak.
It is already testing more than any other European country at a rate of up to 500,000 a week, but the latest plans would more than double that capacity.
Official figures in Germany show 60,000 people have been infected. Its death toll stands at nearly 600 – giving the nation a case-fatality ratio of less than 1 per cent.
In comparison, the death rate in the UK where only hospitalised patients are being swabbed is six times higher because officials are missing tens of thousands of mild cases.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected around 800,000 people worldwide, has secured a boost in poll ratings.
British health chiefs have said they could start giving out coronavirus ‘immunity’ certificates like Germany to allow millions of Britons out of lockdown.
Otherwise, there is no official way of keeping track of who has already battled the virus and has developed some form of immunity.
On Sunday night it was claimed that officials had finally agreed deals to purchase millions of home antibody tests to start being used in the UK by mid-April.
It comes as ministers yesterday faced a furious backlash after it emerged the UK is still not carrying out 10,000 tests a day – despite claims the level had been hit.
Ministers boasted on Sunday that they had reached a target of 10,000 tests a day of whether people currently have the virus, as the deadly outbreak spreads.
However, while the capacity has been apparently reached, the government has yet to carry out that number.
The latest figures from Public Health England were 8,278 in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday, which was actually down from 9,114 the previous day.
Professor Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, said the millions of kits Number 10 had ordered in principle were ‘under investigation’
NHS staff get tested for the coronavirus at a facility specifically for health workers in Surrey
A testing station has been set up for NHS workers only in Chessington, Surrey. Healthcare staff are crying out for regular testing so they can be sure they are safe to work with patients
WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST, AND HOW IS IT DIFFERENT TO AN ANTIGEN OR SWAB TEST?
An antibody test is one which tests whether someone’s immune system is equipped to fight a specific disease or infection.
When someone gets infected with a virus their immune system must work out how to fight it off and produce substances called antibodies.
These are extremely specific and are usually only able to tackle one strain of one virus. They are produced in a way which makes them able to latch onto that specific virus and destroy it.
For example, if someone catches COVID-19, they will develop COVID-19 antibodies for their body to use to fight it off.
The body then stores versions of these antibodies in the immune system so that if it comes into contact with that same virus again it will be able to fight it off straight away and probably avoid someone feeling any symptoms at all.
To test for these antibodies, medics or scientists can take a fluid sample from someone – usually blood – and mix it with part of the virus to see if there is a reaction between the two.
If there is a reaction, it means someone has the antibodies and their body knows how to fight off the infection – they are immune. If there is no reaction it means they have not had it yet.
Antibody tests differ to a swab test, known as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which aims to pick up on active viruses currently in the bloodstream.
A PCR test works by a sample of someone’s genetic material – their RNA – being taken to lab and worked up in a full map of their DNA at the time of the test.
This DNA can then be scanned to find evidence of the virus’s DNA, which will be embroiled with the patient’s own if they are infected at the time.
The PCR test is more reliable but takes longer, while the antibody test is faster but more likely to produce an inaccurate result. It does not look for evidence of past infection.
Antigens are parts of a virus that trigger the immune system’s response to fight the infection, and can show up in blood before antibodies are made.
The key advantage of antigen tests is that it can take several days for the immune system to develop enough antibodies to be picked up by a test, whereas antigens can be seen almost immediately after infection.
Antigen tests are used to diagnose patients with flu, as well as malaria, strep A and HIV.
In last night’s Downing Street press conference, Professor Doyle said the tests would be point-of-care, meaning they could be done ‘in the home’.
She added: ‘This testing needs to be evaluated to make sure it is valid- in other words, that it does what it says and at scale.
‘This would be large numbers. We want to make sure we are doing something that is safe and is actually valid and correct when it is ready.’
Her comments echoed the concerns of England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty, who last week warned that the only thing worse than no test was a bad test.
Britain has repeatedly been criticised for its controversial testing policy to only swab patients in hospital for the killer coronavirus.
It means the true size of the Britain’s outbreak is a mystery because officials have no idea who is actually infected.
A top Government adviser yesterday suggested up to 2million people may already have caught the deadly coronavirus.
And University of Oxford scientists last week claimed that up to half of the UK could have already caught the disease, called COVID-19.
But official figures show 22,000 patients have tested positive. The death toll currently stands at around 1,400.
The World Health Organization earlier this month warned the only way to get a grip on the escalating pandemic was to ‘test, test, test’.
Confusion has surrounded Britain’s plan to buy millions of antibody kits, which last week it was revealed would have to be sent off in the post.
Professor Doyle said samples would need to be sent to a lab and analysed by specialists – a process that could take as long as a day.
It is unclear who makes the antibody kits that would need to be posted – Number 10 has been tight-lipped regarding the whole testing regime.
But the Government is also still in talks with firms that produce home-testing kits, which can give results in 10 minutes.
Number 10 originally claimed to have ordered 3.5million kits in principle. It is unclear whether these relate strictly to just the postal kits.
But ministers have now claimed to have ordered 17.5million kits, in principle. It is thought most of these will be home-tests, which will be available in batches – as and when they are ready.
The Department of Health and Social Care has identified a number of suppliers who can make the antibody tests, if they past medical checks.
Despite repeated requests from MailOnline, officials have refused to confirm which firms are in the running.
BioSure’s Ms Bard said it was ‘hugely optimistic’ for the Government to say it could get its tests out in three weeks, adding ‘six weeks is more likely’.
She warned that she cannot scale up any manufacturing until they are approved, in case the finger-prick kits fail stringent medical checks – which would be a great expense to the company.
BioSure already makes a home-testing kit for HIV, which looks for antibodies in the blood and gives a result in 15 minutes.
BioSure claims to have developed an at-home finger prick test that takes a quarter of an hour
It works exactly like the firm’s HIV self test, which requires the user to take a drop of blood using a safety lancet before using its pen device to scan the sample for COVID-19 antibodies
FURY AS UK IS STILL NOT CARRYING OUT 10,000 TESTS A DAY
Ministers are facing a furious backlash today after it emerged the UK is still not carrying out 10,000 tests a day – despite claims the level had been hit.
Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock both hailed the target having been reached yesterday amid mounting criticism of the government response.
However, Public Health England has revealed that the latest daily number of tests of whether people were currently suffering from the disease was actually 9,114.
And health minister Helen Whately conceded today that while the ‘capacity’ was now in place to carry out 10,000 checks a day, the actual figure was still below that.
The confusion fuelled anger about delays in scaling up the testing regime, with questions over how Germany is managing to carry out more than 500,000 a week.
Its test, which is currently being evaluated, has just been recalibrated to look for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.
Other companies in discussion with the Government are likely to be in a similar position as Essex-based BioSure.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia agreed that the order of 17.5million kits by mid-April ‘does seem a stretch’.
He told MailOnline: ‘Certainly we need to get a substantial proportion of them distributed to people as soon as possible.’
Derby-based SureScreen is one company that has been approached by Number 10. It claims it can make 500,000 of its home-tests each week.
Ministers hope the antibody tests will identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune.
The tests would help get NHS staff back to work with screening of frontline workers, such as teachers and police officers, to follow.
The programme could see movement restrictions lifted earlier than the six months suggested by the Government’s scientific advisers yesterday.
‘The top priority is randomised testing to establish how far the disease has spread,’ a Whitehall source said.
A car drivers into the testing facility at the make-shift drive-through facility in Surrey
A worker wearing a face mask and apron stands waiting as a car approaches for a drive-through coronavirus in test
UK COULD GIVE OUT ‘IMMUNITY’ CERTIFICATES
The UK could start giving out coronavirus ‘immunity’ certificates like Germany to allow millions of Britons out of lockdown.
Health officials are looking into whether members of the public could be given some kind of document that says they have built up immunity to the disease, and are therefore allowed out of their homes, The Telegraph reports.
To get a certificate, a person would have to show they have already had COVID-19 using an antibody test, which is hoped to be rolled out soon.
The finger-prick blood test will detect if a person has antibodies against the disease, indicating they have already the illness and fought it, therefore are unlikely to be ‘reinfected’ if they go back into society.
The test won’t be available to the public for some time. Public Health England have said that a small number of tests are being checked for accuracy in a laboratory. Then, they are expected to be distributed via Amazon and sold in Boots so they can be available to everyone.
The move towards ‘immunity certificates’ follows Germany, who are making plans to introduce it soon.
Up to 100,000 citizens are set to be tested at a time, with documents issued to those who are no longer at risk of catching the virus.
Researchers will also use the data to advise the government on when schools should be re-opened and mass gatherings permitted once again.
For weeks Britain has relied on swabs to test patients in hospital, a lengthy process which can take up to two days.
Officials finally announced on Friday that they would begin antigen testing on NHS frontline staff.
It comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced he believes testing is key to the relaxation of social distancing measures.
Writing in the Daily Mail, he asked: ‘Is it too far-fetched to aim to be the first country that tests every single member of the population at home?
‘Mass social distancing will help flatten the curve, but only testing will save us from months, maybe years, of anguish and economic paralysis.’
Iceland has already carried out a population-wide testing programme and Norway announced one yesterday.
It comes after the president of the Royal College of Physicians today said up to 30 per cent of its staff is currently off work.
Professor Andrew Goddard told BBC Breakfast coronavirus testing being rolled out to frontline NHS workers would make a ‘big difference’.
He said: ‘I have got lots of colleagues at the moment who are sitting at home with family members who have got symptoms.
‘They themselves don’t have symptoms and are champing at the bit to try to get back to work.
‘So, if we can get the tests and get those people back on the shop floor, then that would be brilliant.’
Scientists fear that lifting restrictions too early – before the virus is in retreat –could lead to a second spike in deaths.
Britain is currently conducting only ‘antigen’ testing – a swab that requires laboratory analysis. A drive through test facility is pictured above in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures, London
HOW BIG IS BRITAIN’S CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK?
Britain has repeatedly been criticised for its controversial testing policy to only swab patients in hospital for the killer coronavirus.
It means the true size of the Britain’s outbreak is a mystery because officials have no idea who is actually infected, or how many cases there are.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a Government adviser, today claimed up to 2million people may already have caught the deadly coronavirus.
He was one of the authors of a bleak Imperial College London report that convinced Downing Street to ramp up its efforts to stop the crisis.
Professor Ferguson and colleagues warned that 250,000 Brits could die under a controversial plan to build-up ‘herd immunity’.
University of Oxford scientists last week claimed that up to half of the UK could have already caught the disease, called COVID-19.
Epidemiologists claimed the virus was circulating in the UK by mid-January, around two weeks before the first reported case.
Scientists called for immediate large-scale antibody testing to allow officials to understand the true size of the escalating outbreak.
But official figures show fewer than 20,000 patients have tested positive. The death toll currently stands at around 1,200.
Professor Hunter said: ‘If you relax social distancing based on a levelling off of cases you could see a resurgence. So we have to be cautious about that because we just don’t know enough about what is going on.
‘But if we know, through mass antibody testing, that a large proportion of the population is immune, you could lift social distancing much earlier.’
Ministers decided earlier this month to reserve all Britain’s testing capacity for those in hospitals.
But that move has left officials ‘blindfolded’ in their response to the crisis, the World Health Organisation has warned. It has called on all countries to ‘test, test, test’.
The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day.
Even front-line NHS staff were not being tested until this weekend, which meant 20 per cent were in self-isolation last week.
South Korea – initially one of the worst hit countries – managed to quickly control its outbreak by aggressively testing for the disease.
Germany yesterday announced plans for a testing programme that will see it issue 100,000 ‘immunity passports’ a month.
Professor Eleanor Riley, an infectious disease expert at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Mass antibody testing will give us a much better idea of how widely the virus has spread in the population.’
Medical equipment is pictured outside London’s Excel centre, which has been turned into NHS Nightingale Hospital. One in four Britons could be tested for coronavirus to try to shorten the lockdown
In a sign that ministers have finally accepted the urgency of mass testing, officials have agreed deals to buy 17.5million kits for use by mid-April. They hope to identify contagion hotspots as well as people who are immune. An NHS worker is pictured above being tested for the virus in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures in London
The Government has been fiercely criticised for failing to prioritise testing, with the daily figures failing to yet hit 10,000. In Germany, by comparison, officials are testing more than 70,000 people a day