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Antibody tests will be offered to all health and social care staff in England to determine whether they have had Covid-19 in a move hailed a potential “game changer” in the effort to end the crisis.
Supplies of the tests are also being secured for the other UK countries, but it will be up the devolved governments to decide how best to use them.
“History has shown that understanding an enemy is fundamental to defeating it”
The results will offer a better understanding of the true prevalence of the virus across regions and will also improve scientific knowledge about the body’s response to Covid-19.
There is currently no firm evidence to suggest that having the antibodies means the carrier is forever immune to Covid-19 or that they can no longer transmit the virus to others.
However, a Public Health England study called SIREN is currently underway to try answer some of these questions.
Under the new antibody testing programme in England, which will start next week, NHS and social care staff will be first in line for the tests.
Clinicians will be able to request tests for patients in both hospital and social care settings if they deem it appropriate.
The new offer follows an announcement on Monday that viral tests to show if someone currently has Covid-19 were now available to anyone over the age of five with symptoms across the UK.
While a viral test is done through a swab of the throat and nose, the antibody test requires a blood sample.
The government described the new antibody test as “highly accurate”.
A deal for 10 million tests has been secured with Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche and American health firm Abbott Laboratories.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said the launch of the antibody programme was an “important milestone”.
“Knowing you have these antibodies will help us to understand in the future if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, dying from coronavirus and of transmitting coronavirus,” he added.
“History has shown that understanding an enemy is fundamental to defeating it.
“In this latest fight, our ingenuity and our brilliant scientists and our scientific curiosity is what will keep us one step ahead of this virus.”
Health and social care staff will be asked by their employer whether they want to have an antibody test.
For NHS staff, a new network of regional trust chief executives has been established to oversee the programme, which will utilise existing and expanded NHS phlebotomy services.
For social care staff, the testing programme will be rolled out in a phased way across regions and discussions will be held with local leaders to decide the best way to go about this.
Social care staff will be tested using a separate phlebotomy service, which will be able to take blood at their place of work.
“This could be a game changer – and it is great that we now have a reliable antibody test”
Patients who are already having blood taken as part of other tests will be asked whether they would like an antibody test.
Responding to the news that antibody testing will be given to health and care staff as a priority, Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: “This could be a game changer – and it is great that we now have a reliable antibody test.”
However, Mr Dickson stressed that there needed to be a “clear plan” for how the tests would be rolled out, and also called for “assurance that there will be no obstacles to staff accessing them”.
While acknowledging that there remained much unknown about what the presence of antibodies meant, Mr Dickson said the testing programme would be a key tool in finding the answers.
Professor John Newton, national coordinator of the UK Covid-19 testing programme, said understanding of the body’s immune response to the virus was currently “limited”, making it vital for everyone to continue to follow social distancing measures.
He added: “Our understanding of this virus will only continue to grow as new scientific evidence and studies emerge. This new national testing programme is a very important part of that work.”
The SIREN study seeks to understand whether the presence of Covid-19 antibodies protects people from future infection by monitoring 10,000 healthcare workers over the course of at least a year.
Participants will have nose and throat swabs and blood samples taken regularly to determine new acute infections and measure their antibody response.
SIREN study lead, Dr Susan Hopkins, said: “The results of this PHE study will be an important piece of the puzzle.
“We know people who have had Covid-19 produce antibodies in response but what we don’t know is whether this means they have immunity against future infection and how long that protection may last.
“Improving our understanding will be critical to future decisions about how best to control the spread of coronavirus.”