Coronavirus: Government’s testing chief admits none of 3.5m antibody kits work sufficiently

Tests are 'not good enough to be worth rolling out in very large scale', says Professor John Newton

Kate Ng
Monday 06 April 2020 16:11 BST
Matt Hancock says 'no test is better than a bad test'

The UK government’s new testing chief has admitted that none of the 3.5 million antibody tests ordered from China are fit for widespread use.

Professor John Newton, who was appointed by health secretary Matt Hancock to oversee testing, reportedly said the tests were only able to identify immunity in people who had been severely sick with coronavirus.

The tests did not pass the evaluation stage, and he was quoted by The Times as saying they were “not good enough to be worth rolling out in very large scale”.

Prof Newton, director of public health improvement for Public Health England (PHE) said three “mega labs” for testing NHS staff was his top priority and did not expect university and commercial labs to be able to help.

He said: “We are not relying on lots of people coming forward to help us to achieve what’s required and we shouldn’t get too distracted by that.

“There’s a big, big ask at the moment which is quite specific [on testing NHS staff]. So a lot of these companies who are offering their capacity may not be directly related to that ask and therefore they might not be as helpful at the moment.”

Mr Hancock has also acknowledged that early analysis of the tests showed “some of them have not performed well”.

He added, speaking on Thursday, that: “We’re hopeful that they [the tests] will improve and that the later tests that we’ve got our hands on will be able to be reliable enough for people to use them with confidence.”

Last month, a PHE director told ministers the 15-minute home test kits would be available “within days” once they have been cleared – but doubt was cast over the accuracy of the tests just days after.

But eight days after Professor Sharon Peacock said the tests would “absolutely” become available, Downing Street was unable to give any timetable for the introduction of the tests.

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson also warned that the use of unreliable tests could have “significant adverse consequences” if people were given false confidence in their own immunity.

Antibody testing, which Boris Johnson called a “gamechanger”, is regarded as crucial to eventually lifting the lockdown measures in place across the country.

Prof Newton has poured cold water on the idea the government may be able to make millions of home test kits in days, and said the idea was “based on the fact that we might just buy the existing test, and at the moment the judgement is that that wouldn’t be the best thing to do”.

He added he was “optimistic” that commercial partners wiling to work with scientists who had been evaluating the tests would be able to improve them.

Meanwhile, the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) raised concerns that labs around the country lack the vital materials needed to meet the government’s promise to test 100,000 people for coronavirus a day by the end of April.

Allan Wilson said during an interview with Sky News: “My main concern is that we do not have the capacity to meet the targets set by Mr Hancock. We’re still struggling to meet that target. We have staff around the country, biomedical scientists and equipment ready and staff trained to carry out the testing, but we are really struggling to get the consumables, the chemicals and testing kits we need to carry out these tests.”

In a statement, IBMS said there were “huge issues” regarding the reliability of the millions of antibody tests bought by the UK government.

“At least one in 10 people who test positive on the antibody test (and are therefore considered to have immunity) will be “false positives” and will not have immunity,” it said.

“Using the skilled workforce we have at our disposal and doing the tests that we know work is currently the best strategy. This will require the NHS to further expand its testing approach to ensure the right tests are performed at the right time on the right people to successfully tackle this worldwide pandemic, supporting and protecting those at most risk from this virus.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Antibody tests offer the hope that people who think they have had the disease will know they are immune and get back to life as normal. We are currently working with several companies who are offering these tests and are evaluating their effectiveness.

“The Covid[-19] scientific advisory panel, led by Prof Sir John Bell, is currently undertaking a rapid evaluation process to establish their reliability. We will publish the results of this evaluation once it is completed.”

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