• NHS testing manager fears “disastrous results” from home covid-19 testing
  • Leading virologist warns of “pitfalls” with home testing
  • Government now looking for “homegrown test”

Experts have warned giving the public coronavirus antibody tests to be carried out at home could lead to “disastrous results”.

A testing manager at an NHS trust told HSJ they feared the public may take the tests too soon for antibodies to appear, which could produce misleading results, while a leading virologist at the British Society for Immunology called for antibody tests to be carried out in GP surgeries.

Public Health England has previously said it wants to distribute antibody tests via Amazon and Boots and make them available to the general public. Health secretary Matt Hancock has also promised increased antibody tests will form part of 100,000 of all types of daily covid-19 tests by the end of April.

The government provisionally ordered 17.5 million antibody tests, but none of them have so far been proven reliable enough for mass use. Ministers have said they now back efforts to develop a “homegrown test”.

Louise Cosby, a virologist who has been involved in setting up the covid-19 testing labs in Northern Ireland, said there are “many pitfalls” in the concept of home antibody testing, and the tests currently being worked up in labs “are having problems with the way the antibodies are behaving”.

Professor Cosby, a BSI committee member who is based at the Wellcome Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Obviously the home tests have to be in simple form. Some lab tests can be more complex and easier for a skilled person to interpret.

“If it is healthcare workers doing [the tests] they may have more understanding than the general public, particularly if they are vulnerable or older people.”

The NHS testing manager, who asked to remain anonymous, told HSJ unsupervised home testing could lead to “disastrous results”. 

The manager said people may take the tests at the onset of symptoms, and get misleading results. This could mean a person thinking they are safe to go out in the community when they may not be. 

The manager said: “However simple the test is, people will find ways of doing it wrong. The main issue is it’s an antibody test — that’s going to confuse people and cause problems. There’s going to be a period of time, at least a couple of weeks, before people will [produce] an antibody response.

“A member of the public will be showing symptoms and want to do a test [straight away], get a negative result and think they have not got the virus and there’s a risk they will go out and infect other people.

“It’s going to cause a lot of confusion, but it’s going to make some companies a huge amount of money.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Antibody tests offer the hope that people who think they have had the disease will know they are immune.

“So far, the antibody tests that have gone through the validation process have not proven accurate enough to be rolled out for public use, which is why the government is backing efforts to develop a homegrown test.”