A test to determine whether people have been infected with coronavirus in the past has been approved by health officials and will be rolled out across the country starting next week.
Here we answer the main questions surrounding the new test.
– What is the new test?
Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche and US rival Abbott Laboratories have each developed a test that can tell if anyone has ever had the coronavirus.
It includes taking a small blood sample and testing for antibodies that indicate exposure to coronavirus.
Public Health England (PHE) has assessed and approved the tests 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 at least 99.8%, which means that there is only a very small amount of space for tests to come back as a false positive.
– What if I’ve never had symptoms of Covid-19?
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’ve had Covid-19, am I immune to it now?
At this time, the science is inconclusive whether a positive test result for antibodies means that a person is immune to Covid-19, whether or not they can be reinfected with the virus, or pass it on. Research is being conducted to learn the answers to these questions.
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.
Meanwhile, if someone tests positive, they will still have to follow social distance measures and the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
– Who can undergo the new test?
Ten million tests will be rolled out in phases over the coming months, with the UK’s health and care personnel, patients and residents first in line.
The government says it will also arrange stocks of tests on behalf of the devolved nations, which will decide how to use their allocations.
In England, health and social care personnel are asked by their employer if they want to undergo an antibody test.
Clinicians can request tests for patients in the hospital and in social care facilities if they see fit.
For healthcare personnel, the rollout will be phased in different regions, with the government and local leaders deciding which places are best to start.
We hope the test will be available to the general public, although it is unclear how and when this will happen.
Meanwhile, people undergoing blood tests for other conditions are also asked if they want a coronavirus antibody test.
– What is the main advantage of testing?
Accurate and reliable laboratory-based antibody testing will improve understanding and data on Covid-19.
Once it is proven that people with antibodies are immune, they can safely return to work and socialize with other people without fear of contracting or spreading the virus.
The tests will also show how long antibodies remain in a person’s system, which can help develop treatments and vaccines.
– 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 it turned out to be immunity, people could safely return to work and socialize.
On a large scale, it can also provide vital information to track where the disease has been and to predict future hotspots.