How the coronavirus antibody test works – and whether you can get one

A test to find out if people have been infected with coronavirus in the past has been approved by health officials and could be rolled out in a few weeks.

Here we answer the main questions surrounding the new test.

– What is the new test?

Pharmaceutical giant Roche has developed a test that can tell if anyone has ever had coronavirus.

The test involves taking a small blood sample and testing for antibodies that indicate exposure to coronavirus.

Public Health England (PHE) has assessed and approved the new Roche test as safe and reliable for widespread use.

– How reliable is it?

Very. The test picks up 100% of people who have had coronavirus.

This means that it is 100% sensitive.

It also has a specificity of over 99.8%.

A test that is 100% specific means that all healthy individuals are correctly identified as healthy – there are no false positives.

Some experts say the Roche test leaves room for false positive results.

– What if I’ve never had symptoms of Covid-19?

It does not matter.

Experts believe that some of the people who have had Covid-19 never actually develop symptoms.

The new test can identify people who have had coronavirus, even if they have never had any indication that they have been infected.

– If the test shows I have had Covid-19, am I immune to it?

Scientists are uncertain and much remains to be learned about coronavirus.

Experts believe that although the presence of antibodies indicates a degree of immunity, it is unclear whether people are fully protected and how long an immunity lasts.

There is some suggestion that immunity can last for two to three years, but more work remains to be done.

– Can I have the new test?

Not yet. The government plans to roll out the test to first-line workers such as those in health and social care first.

Hopefully the test will be made available to the general public, although it is unclear whether this will be through the NHS or through commercial websites.

Roche says it can deliver hundreds of thousands of antibody tests to the UK every week.

If people were found to be absolutely immune, people could safely return to work and socialize with other people without fear of contracting or spreading the virus.

– How does it work?

A blood sample is processed by centrifugation or spinning using automated equipment already installed at NHS locations in the UK.

This causes some of the blood, called the serum, which contains antibodies for many things, to rise to the top.

Then special chemicals called reagents are added, and if Covid-19 antibodies are present, the chemicals cause a light reaction that a machine detects.

– Is it a potential game changer, as Boris Johnson has suggested?

If people were found to be absolutely immune, people could safely return to work and socialize with other people without fear of contracting or spreading the virus.

On a large scale, it can also provide vital information to track where the disease has been and to predict future hotspots.

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