Thousands of 15-minute home tests for coronavirus will be delivered by Amazon to people self-isolating with symptoms or will go on sale on the high street within days, according to Public Health England (PHE), in a move that could restore many people’s lives to a semblance of pre-lockdown normality.
Prof Sharon Peacock, the director of the national infection service at PHE, told MPs on the science and technology committee that mass testing in the UK would be possible by next week.
The UK government has bought 3.5m tests, which the health secretary, Matt Hancock, mentioned on Tuesday with no suggestion that they would be available to the public so quickly, and is ordering millions more.
The test, which looks like a pregnancy test and involves pricking the finger to produce a drop of blood, which is then analysed by the device, will first be validated in Oxford to ensure it works as well as scientists hope. That will happen this week, Peacock said, and it will then be available to test healthcare workers and also the general public.
“Several million tests have been purchased for use. These are brand new products. We have to be clear they work as they are claimed to do,” she said. “Once they have been tested this week and the bulk of tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community.”
Amazon has agreed to carry out distribution and the tests will also go on sale in chemist shops.
Asked if they would be available in days rather than weeks or months, Peacock said: “Yes, absolutely.” If there was a charge for them, she thought it would be minimal, she said.
Widespread availability of a fingerprick test that produces results in 10 to 15 minutes is a game-changer. NHS doctors and nurses with symptoms will know immediately whether they have – or have recovered from – Covid-19, enabling them to get back to work sooner.
NHS workers or anyone else will be able to know if they have had the virus and are therefore immune, which means they could resume their normal lives, no longer having to work from home or keep their distance from other people. It is widely thought that having Covid-19 makes people immune to the disease or that if they get it a second time, they do not transmit it.
The test detects the presence of IGM, an antibody that arises very early on in the infection, and IGG, which is increased in the body’s response to the virus. The results of some of the tests on order can be read by anyone, but others would need to be interpreted by healthcare professionals.
The UK is not the only country ordering in the antibody tests. “Tests are being ordered across Europe and elsewhere and purchased in south-east Asia. This is widespread practice. We are not alone in doing this,” said Peacock.