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UK’s coronavirus testing tsar admits government yet to find antibody test that works

‘None of the antibody tests were close’: UK’s coronavirus testing tsar says none of the kits assessed by the government work well enough to be rolled out across the nation – but he remains ‘optimistic’ of a breakthrough

  • Professor John Newton has been put in charge of ramping up testing efforts
  • Today he admitted none of the antibody tests assessed so far have worked 
  • But he insisted he remains ‘reasonably optimistic’ about a breakthrough soon
  • Coronavirus antibody tests will show if someone has already had the disease

The UK’s coronavirus testing tsar today admitted none of the antibody tests assessed by the government worked well enough to be rolled out across the country. 

Professor John Newton has been tasked by Health Secretary Matt Hancock with overseeing the acceleration of Britain’s testing programme. 

But he told MPs this afternoon that the government was yet to find an antibody test which is sufficiently accurate and that of the ones which have been examined ‘none of them performed well enough’. 

He said experts had set a ‘clear target’ for the reliability of the tests but that of the devices assessed so far ‘none of them frankly were close’ to hitting it. 

Despite the bleak outlook, Prof Newton insisted he and his scientists are still ‘reasonably optimistic’ of a breakthrough in the near future. 

Professor John Newton today told the Science and Technology Select Committee that none of the antibody tests assessed by the government so far were up to scratch

The UK’s testing strategy is split into two sections: Antigen testing and antibody testing. 

Antigen testing shows if someone currently has coronavirus and it is these tests which are in use in hospitals. They are also being used on NHS staff who are in self-isolation to determine if they have the killer bug or not, with those who are clear able to return to the frontline. 

Antibody testing shows if someone has already had the virus and if they have some immunity. 

This is viewed as a potential game changer because it would allow those identified as already having had the disease to go back to work. 

However, mass scale antibody tests are yet to be rolled out anywhere in the world because the technology is new and there is concern over how reliable they are. 

Mr Hancock has set a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of the month. This target only relates to antigen testing. 

Prof Newton told the Science and Technology Select Committee that all of the antibody tests assessed by the government were not deemed to be good enough. 

He said: ‘All the tests that have been made available have been tested and none of them performed well enough.  

‘In particular they didn’t have sufficient sensitivity which is the ability to correctly identify the people who have been infected. 

‘We set a clear target for a test to achieve and none of them frankly were close. 

‘Now, that doesn’t mean to say that they don’t have any value but it is considered that that is not good enough and it is possible to improve on that. 

‘There is an active partnership going on with industry in this country and abroad and with our academics to improve on the underlying molecules which make up the tests. 

‘So there is the specificity and the sensitivity of the tests are determined by the design, the scientific design of the components. 

‘If we could get that right and our scientists are really quite confident that they can do that, then the manufacturers could scale up the production of that test and make it available really quite quickly. 

‘So we are reasonably optimistic that we could produce a test that does meet the standards in the time when it is needed at very high volumes.’  

The government had put in holding orders with manufacturers for some tests, only purchasing the minimum amount needed for assessment. It is now in the process of cancelling those orders.