UK coronavirus test with 20-minute wait being trialled

The government has announced the start of trials for a new test to see if people have coronavirus, with results processed on site within 20 minutes.

The news came as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the UK had made a deal to receive up to 10m antibody tests, a different type of test which detects whether someone has previously had the virus.

Sample testing for antibodies across the country indicated that 17% of people in London might have had coronavirus, as against “about 5% or higher” in the rest of the country, Hancock announced at the daily Downing Street press conference.

Antibody testing has been regularly billed by Boris Johnson and ministers as “a game changer” in the response to the virus, but previous antibody tests have proved unreliable.

Hancock said the government has signed contracts for up to 10m tests, which have been approved as accurate, from drug firms Roche and Abbott. Three domestic-made tests are also being assessed.

“From next week we will begin rolling these out in a phased way, at first to health and care staff, patients and residents,” he said. The devolved nations would be given supplies of the tests to use as they saw fit, Hancock added.

Reliable antibody testing on a large scale was “an important milestone”, Hancock said, and would allow “systems of certification to ensure people who have positive antibodies can be given assurances of what they can safely do”.

Another use of such tests would be to better learn whether exposure to coronavirus and presence of antibodies gives people immunity from catching it again, and if so for how long.

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Separately, the health department announced that the trial of the new, rapid test to see whether people were carrying the virus had begun in Hampshire.

The test “has been proven effective in clinical settings”, a statement said, and would be tried out in hospital A&E departments without access to laboratories, GP coronavirus testing hubs and care homes across the county. The trial will involve around 4,000 people and will run for up to six weeks.

The commonly used type of swab test for the virus, known as PCR tests, have to be processed at different temperatures, requiring a laboratory. The new type, called loop-mediated isothermal amplification, also uses a swab but does not need a change in temperature for results.

If the test proves accurate and as rapid as billed, it will greatly help the government’s plans for a test and trace system to pick up new outbreaks of coronavirus once lockdown ruled are further eased.

Also speaking at the No 10 briefing, Prof John Newton, who is in charge of the government’s testing efforts, said quick test results were a key element. Currently, he said, 90% of results come within 48 hours, and almost half within 24 hours.

One apparent holdup for the test and trace system has been delays to a bespoke NHS phone app, which is meant to track all the people with whom someone who tests positive has come into recent contact with, by communicating with others’ phones.

The next phase of lockdown easing could begin by 1 June, but the app, which is being trialled on the Isle of Wight, is not set to be ready for several weeks.

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Hancock played down the importance of the delayed app in the process. “The technology is an important part, but it is not the only part,” he told the press conference.

Newton reiterated this, saying the app was an “additional component” which could be “layered on top of the more personal contact tracing” by officials. “They are distinct but complementary, it’s perfectly OK – in fact possibly advantageous – to introduce the one before the other,” he said.



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