Superdrug has become the first high-street retailer to offer a COVID-19 home antibody testing kit.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Jessica Rapana
With experts warning a coronavirus vaccine could still be months or years away, the UK government and some retailers are now looking to antibody testing, which could help to determine who has had COVID-19 and therefore might have some immunity to the virus.
Superdrug has become the first high-street retailer to offer a COVID-19 home antibody testing kit. The moves comes after Public Health England announced earlier this month that it had approved a “highly specific” coronavirus antibody test. The government is now working with the manufacturer, Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, and the NHS to roll out the approved testing kit across the UK as soon as possible.
But what is an antibody test and how do they work? Here is what you need to know.
What is an antibody test?
Antibody tests, also known as serological tests, show if you had a previous infection with a virus by looking for antibodies in your blood. Antibodies are proteins that help fight off infections. People who have had COVID-19, including those who were sick without symptoms and those who were sick and have recovered, will possess these antibodies.
Can an antibody test detect a current infection?
Antibody tests are not intended to detect a current COVID-19 infection as it can take 10 days or more for coronavirus antibodies to become detectable in a person’s blood after recovery.
Why are antibody tests helpful?
Accurate testing for the virus and the prevalence of antibodies will provide the government with a clearer picture of the spread of the disease and how many have been infected.
These tests will also shed more light on those individuals who may have had some immunity to the virus and help the government to plan services for those who do not.
“Understanding more about the current spread of coronavirus and the prevalence of antibodies is a vital part of our ongoing response to the pandemic,” health minister James Bethell said. “This information will inform the future action we take to manage the spread of the virus, including the development of new tests and treatments.”
Will I be able to get an ‘immunity passport’?
The idea of a so-called ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate’ that would enable individuals to travel or return to work assuming that they are protected against reinfection has been floated in some countries as a way of easing lockdowns.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that this could lead to an increase in virus transmission because there was “not enough evidence” that people who developed antibodies after recovering from the coronavirus were protected against reinfection.
Do coronavirus antibodies confer immunity?
Not necessarily. While the presence of coronavirus antibodies indicates that a person has had COVID-19, it does not guarantee that a person cannot be reinfected with the virus. Even if these antibodies do confer immunity, researchers still don’t know how long this protection will last.
Certain virus antibodies provide lifetime protection from infections, such as smallpox, while others tend to fade over time. On April 24, the WHO announced that “no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans”.
Who can get a coronavirus home antibody test?
Public Health England has now approved a new antibody test, developed by Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, to find out whether people have been infected with coronavirus in the past, the BBC reports.
The blood test looks for antibodies to detect whether a person has already had COVID-19 and might now have some immunity. The test, which has already been approved by medical regulators in the EU and the United States, was found to be “highly specific” when evaluated by experts in the UK.
Geoff Twist, the managing director of Roche UK and Ireland, said that the company was working with the government and the NHS to enable to test to be rolled out across the UK as soon as possible.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said earlier this week that the government was in the “closing stages of commercial negotiations”.
Where can I buy a coronavirus home antibody test?
On Wednesday, Superdrug became the first high street retailer to offer the antibody test. The kit costs £69 and buyers need to take a blood sample at home, which is then sent off to a lab for testing.
Superdrug’s healthcare director Michael Henry said the company had decided to launch the test because it was “confident of its reliability and accuracy”.
Do coronavirus home antibody tests work?
NHS England’s medical director Stephen Powis cautioned people in England against using home tests, saying experts were still “evaluating” some of the commercial antibody tests that are becoming available, BBC reports.
“Public Health England have been evaluating the new antibody tests, the commercial tests that are becoming available,” Prof Powis said during the No 10 daily briefing on Wednesday. “I would caution against using any tests that might be made available without knowing quite how good those tests are… I would caution people against being tempted to have those tests.”
A preliminary study, published in May, found that of the 14 coronavirus antibody tests available in the US only three delivered consistently accurate results. The others produced false positive results between 5 per cent to 16 per cent of the time.
The UK government previously raised the idea of making antibody home-test kits available to the public to buy from Amazon and Boots. However, it backed away from the idea after the 3.5 million commercial finger prick tests it ordered were not good enough to use.
Who can get tested for coronavirus in the UK?
The government has set out a two-part testing programme for coronavirus. The first part of the programme, which is already underway, involves testing 100,000 randomly selected people across England to see whether someone is currently infected with the coronavirus. Their nose and throat swabs will be tested for antigens, which indicate the presence of COVID-19. Antigens are structures within a virus that trigger the immune system’s response to fight off the infection and can be detected in a person’s blood before antibodies are made.
In the second part of the programme, a number of different antibody kits will be tested for accuracy and their ease of use at home. The antibody tests will be first carried out on volunteers from Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust, who are known to have had the virus, to assess their accuracy. The test will also be given to 300 public volunteers to self-administer, which requires them to place a finger prick of blood in a cassette, add a dye and read off the result.
If the tests are shown to be accurate and easily usable, the test will be distributed to up to more people with the potential to be rolled out to 100,000 people later this year in order to provide an indication of the prevalence of COVID-19 based on the presence of coronavirus antibodies.