By Daniel Gaffney
A test to confirm whether people have had covid-19, has been approved by health officials in England.
Public Health England said the antibody test, developed by Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, was a “very positive development”. The blood test looks for antibodies to see if a person has already had the virus and might now have some immunity.
Until now, officials have have said such tests are not reliable enough. The government previously spent a reported £16m buying antibody tests which later proved to be ineffective.
The main use of an antibody test is to find out how many people have been infected.
The official figures are only a fraction of the total number – not everybody is getting tested and some people are being infected without developing symptoms. Antibody tests will help answer questions such as how far and how easily the virus has spread and, crucially, how deadly it really is.
There is also a strong case to suggest that the new antibody test could be the key to lifting lockdown, and unlocking the economy – but this has been met with controversy.
The idea is if you have antibodies, then you can go back to work. This could be particularly helpful in hospitals and care homes full of vulnerable people, if you could guarantee the staff were immune. But having antibodies does not automatically mean you cannot get sick or harbour the virus and pass it on to others.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: “We have talked about, in the future, the potential for some kind of health certificate related to whether or not you have antibodies.” However, World Health Organization scientists advise against using so called “immunity passports” because of the lack of evidence.
Last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the UK was in talks with Roche about a “very large-scale roll-out” of coronavirus antibody testing. But he acknowledged there had been “false hope before” and that he would only make an announcement when the government was “absolutely ready”.