Public Health England (PHE) informed the UK government that (25 March) home-testing kits that identify whether a person has ever been infected with COVID-19 could soon be available to order online and from chemists,.
The simple finger-prick test should take no more than 15 minutes and will see members of the public extract blood from home and send their sample off for evaluation.
It will not test whether someone has the virus currently but if they have already recovered from it, potentially allowing them to return to a more normal daily routine. It will also provide information on how widespread the virus is.
WHY IT MATTERS
Professor Sharon Peacock, director of the National Infection Service for PHE, told the government’s Health and Science select committee that the tests were going through the customary evaluation but that it was “a small matter” that would be “done by the end of the week”.
Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government’s CMO, however, was less optimistic about the timeline. Shortly after Professor Peacock’s address, he stated: “I do not think - and I want to be clear - that this is something we'll suddenly be ordering on the internet next week”.
The UK government has already purchased 3.5 million tests, which they say will be rolled out once their efficacy has been assured.
Priority testing will be given to key workers, particularly in the NHS as increasing numbers of healthcare workers self-isolate, concerned that they have contracted the virus. The at-home test will be able to ascertain whether it is safe for workers to return to work after the virus has passed.
The test is reliant on the widely-held belief that reinfection with the virus is either not possible or rare.
THE LARGER PICTURE
Within the last week, the UK has fallen behind on the number of tests it is carrying out. Although aiming to test 25,000 cases a day in the next few weeks, it is suffering from a lack of resources and availability of staff to carry these out.
On 24th March, 6,491 tests were carried out, a slight increase in line with WHO’s recommendation that countries “test, test, test” to help tackle the pandemic.
Due to the testing deficit, private companies have offered unverified tests that PHE have condemned, including one (no longer available) which cost users £375.
ON THE RECORD
Professor Peacock said: “Several million [pin-prick] tests have been purchased for use. These are brand new products. We have to be clear they work as they are claimed to do. Once they have been tested this week and the bulk of tests arrive, they will be distributed into the community”.
Professor Whitty responded: “The key thing for us to do is evaluate, are these tests accurate enough to be used by the general public? If they are incredibly accurate, we will work out the quickest way to release them. If they are not accurate, we will not release any of them”.
He continued: “We need to help make sure we can get NHS workers tested to make sure we can work out who is immune or almost certainly immune to this infection and who isn’t. We need to go through the evaluation, then the first critical uses, and then spread it out from that point of view […] in a systematic way”.