Antibody tests will be available for NHS and social care staff from next week so they can ascertain if they have already had coronavirus, the Government is expected to announce today.
Healthcare workers will be able to access the tests in the coming days with priority given to front-line staff working close to Covid-19 patients, such as those who work in intensive care units.
The news came as NHS chiefs warned last night against buying commercial antibody tests, after Superdrug became the first high street retailer to offer one for sale.
Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said at the Downing Street press conference he would “caution against using any tests that might be made available without knowing quite how good those tests are”.
The pharmacy yesterday launched a £69 testing kit for use at home.
However, concerns have been raised over the accuracy of results.
Antibody testing is seen as an important part of the Government’s approach to ending the lockdown and opening up the economy and it is understood to be in discussions with Swiss firm Roche to procure millions of tests for use by the NHS.
However, it is yet to be confirmed what level of immunity, if any, infected people develop.
Those taking the Superdrug test would prick their finger at home with a lancet, collect a few drops of blood in a vial and send it to be tested at an accredited laboratory via prepaid post.
However, Abbott, the manufacturer of the test, said it was not intended to be used in this way and should be administered by a medical professional. Yvonne Fovargue, the MP who chairs a parliamentary panel on consumer protection, raised issues with the price.
She said: “£70 with postage for a test which is not completely accurate seems excessive. Superdrug seems to be playing on people’s fears, and that’s not right. What people really need is a readily available, easy to use test that’s accurate. They deserve nothing less.”
A spokesman for Superdrug said: “The price is reflective of the cost price that we pay for the testing.”
Michael Henry, Superdrug’s healthcare director, said the firm had decided to launch the test because “we’re confident of its reliability and accuracy”.
However, Abbott said that, while the test had demonstrated a 99.6 per cent specificity rate when the blood is taken by a medical professional, it has no data relating to at-home use. A spokesman said: “The test is not intended for use as a home test and it should not be conducted with a finger stick blood sample.”
Superdrug said its claim of 97.5 per cent specificity when the blood is drawn at home was based on research by The Doctors Laboratory, a UK accredited lab.
Dr Zoe Williams, the firm’s doctor ambassador, said the test would be offered alongside the “correct counselling and medical support”.
Prof Adam Finn, of the University of Bristol, said it was not clear how useful these types of tests would be.