Antibody test: Scientists call for caution and transparency over government’s ‘game-changer’ coronavirus test

Scientists have raised doubts over the scale of the potential benefit from a coronavirus antibody test touted by the government as a “game-changer”, while calling for more transparency.

The test, developed by Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche, was approved last week by workers at Public Health England’s (PHE) Porton Down facility – the first such test to be given the green light by the government agency.

However, scientists still have doubts about how effective it may be and have urged greater transparency to allow for the scientific community to check that it does carry a 100-per-cent success rate in excluding false positives, as PHE has claimed.

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“Without seeing the study methods and the data it’s impossible to verify these claims of accuracy,” said Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford.

Meanwhile Professor Richard Tedder, visiting professor in Medical Virology at Imperial College London, said the development of the test by Roche was “neither surprising nor remarkable” and that several other manufacturers already had platforms capable of detecting the antibodies.

“Just how sensitive and just how specific it is remains to be seen when this platform is used routinely,” he said. “I find it surprising that PHE appear to have given this preferential treatment and publicity over and above the existing platforms by other companies.”

A second antibody test developed by Abbott has also been approved by PHE.

Nonetheless, Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the development of the antibody test was “a step in the right direction”, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: “In the evolution of these antibody tests to get one that works really well is a major step forward.”

Speaking at Thursday’s Downing Street press conference, deputy chief medical officer for England Jonathan Van-Tam said he believed the antibody test would be “rapidly rolled out in the days and weeks to come as soon as it is practical to do so” and would prove “incredibly important as the days, weeks and months go by”.

He added: “I anticipate that the focus will be on the National Health Service and carers in the first instance”.

Scientists still need to discover whether antibodies offer immunity and for how long they persist, said Prof Van-Tam. “But the good news is we do now have antibody tests that we absolutely can rely on,” he said.

The health minister, Edward Argar, said the government intended to roll out the new test to frontline workers first.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Argar said: “We’re in discussion at the moment with Roche on this. It’s only just gone through the Public Health England assessment as being reliable, as doing the job, and therefore we are having those discussions.

“But we are keen to get as many as quickly as we can and get them out, primarily to the frontline first, the NHS, social care and then more widely. Because this really will be – as the prime minister said – this has the potential to be a game-changer.”

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