UP THE ANTI I took the antibody test that could help get millions back to work
UP THE ANTI – I took the antibody test that could help get millions back to work – by revealing they’ve had Covid WITHOUT realising
IN a pristine laboratory, a vial of my blood is spinning around in a roaring turbine that sounds like five washing machines going off.
An hour later, I’m handed a simple report that spells out whether or not I’ve had coronavirus. And I can’t help but feel surprised.
I’ve come to hVIVO’s London lab to try out their new ‘gold standard’ coronavirus antibody test
The test will require a sample of my blood, which will then be tested for Covid-19 antibodies
I’m here in Whitechapel, East London, for the launch of a state-of-the-art new antibody test, one that – along with others like it – could be the key to unlocking Britain’s ravaged economy.
Described by Boris Johnson as a “game changer”, these tests tell you whether or not you have contracted Covid-19 in the past – crucially allowing those who test positive to know they will have built up some immunity to it, thanks to the antibodies the body creates to fight it off.
With studies estimating that as many as 1 in 5 Londoners have had coronavirus without noticing symptoms, it means that millions could potentially be deemed safe enough to return to work.
“The thinking is that as you come out of lockdown, this is one mechanism that could be used to help remove restrictions,” explains Adam French, lab director of hVIVO, the company launching their test today.
“One method could be that ‘passport’ back to work. Another could be that if you come into contact with someone who tests positive you might not need to spend 14 days self-isolating.”
Boris Johnson has previously hailed the development of antibody tests as a ‘game changer’
Testing ‘arms race’
The national effort to produce antibody tests has been described as an ‘arms race’, with pharmaceutical companies competing to develop a product that is both accurate and easy to roll out across the UK.
In reality, it has proved more of a Wild West.
Back in April, the Government was left scrambling for a £16million refund after ordering 17.5million tests from China that didn’t work.
Similarly, Superdrug last week suspended their £69 home testing kits following advice from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to ignore their results.
Both cases were example of ‘finger prick’ tests, where a blood sample is taken from the patient’s fingertip – a method since deemed particularly inaccurate.
“You don’t want the risk of people getting a false positive, then just resuming going about their daily business before getting infected,” says French.
“That’s why the MHRA and Public Health England (PHE) have come out and advised against the use of finger prick tests.
“Take pregnancy tests – they can now be done from home, but that took 15 years to get right.
“When they first came out you had to go to the doctor to check you were actually pregnant because they were so inaccurate.”
Adam French, director of the lab, says tests administered by a medical practitioner are likely to give far more accurate readings than finger prick kits
hVIVO’s lab is a maze of immaculately cleaned corridors and rooms that look much like a GP’s office.
I’m eager to try the test out for myself, so my first appointment is with the phlebotomist – or blood sampler.
After signing a consent form, a 3.5ml sample of my blood is taken
This is then put into a container and whisked away to the lab for processing
The lab’s associate director, Laura, hands me a consent form, before taking a small sample of blood from my arm using a needle.
For the squeamish among you, rest assured: it’s as painless as you could hope for.
This process, French explains, is crucial in differentiating their test from less accurate methods such as fingerp prick samples.
By using a ‘full blood draw’, he claims the hVIVO Covid Clear Test has 100 per cent accuracy in weeding out false positive results – and a 99.8 per cent success rate in avoiding false negatives.
The test claims to have 100 per cent accuracy in weeding out false positive results – and a 99.8 per cent success rate in avoiding false negatives
It’s not the only company using this method effectively.
In May, the Government agreed a huge deal with the Swiss firm Roche, whose test similarly boasts a 100 per cent ‘gold standard’.
The pharmaceutical giant is now ramping up production for 10million antibody tests, which will be sent out first to hospitals and care homes across the country.
Smaller firms like hVIVO don’t have the capacity to match Roche, but are hoping to form part of what you might call the ‘rear guard’.
As the Government prioritises health workers, the company wants to sell directly to businesses who might otherwise not get access to antibody tests for months – for a guide price of around £100 a test.
“Individuals are very keen to understand. Some of them may be nervous coming back to work and it may help with that
Adam French, HVIVO Lab Director
Quotient – the medical group who have supplied the machinery to hVIVO – are also in talks to get backing from PHE like Roche, in the hope of supplementing the orders already made by Downing Street.
“Individuals in particular are very keen to understand,” says French. “Some of them may be nervous coming back to work and it may help with that.
“The announcement with Roche suggests it is part of the Government’s plan, so that’s why we’ve taken the risk, investing our time and money to make this available.”
Inside the test lab
Next stop on the tour is the lab itself. Here, a blood spinning machine – or centrifuge – sits tidily on the counter, overshadowed by a gigantic box that dominates the room like an old super computer.
This is the MosaiQ 125, the instrument that will ultimately detect whether there are antibodies present in my blood.
A centrifuge spins the blood at top speed, separating it down to its plasma level
It is then put into the slot of this huge computer, which searches for the presence of antibodies
Currently, hVIVO only has one of these machines, but in a single day it can still process 3,000 samples – in a year it can produce more than a million.
My sample is placed in the centrifuge, which whirls away for about ten minutes.
“This separates your whole blood into the plasma level,” says French.
“Then that sample will be taken out, loaded into the instrument and it will draw the plasma off. It’s the plasma that will be able to tell if you’ve got Sars Covid-2 antibodies.”
hVIVO’s machine can process up to 3,000 tests a day – or more than a million over a year
Aside from these tests, hVIVO is busy working on one other important project.
They are also conducting research on a vaccine – and are one of the many labs now hoping to deliberately infect human volunteers with Covid-19 in ‘challenge trials’.
While this has proved controversial, such trials have been backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and MHRA, and French insists they’re looking to make it “completely safe” by using an inactivated strain of the virus.
But just how soon are we likely to develop a vaccine? While cagey on the time frame, the director is hopeful of a breakthrough.
Testing, testing! What type do you need?
There are two main types of coronavirus tests in the UK. Here’s how to tell the difference. If you suspect you currently have coronavirus, you will need to take a viral test. This involves taking a swab using a special cotton bud from your nose or throat, and sending it off to a lab. The tests are available to anyone in UK over the age of five who is displaying symptoms.If you wish to find out if you have already had coronavirus, you will need to take an antibody test.
The most accurate versions of these tests involve a health professional drawing a full blood sample – fingerprick tests like the ‘home kits’ previously sold by Superdrug have been deemed too unreliable.
In May, the Government agreed a deal to purchase 10 million antibody tests, but initially the NHS and social care workers will be their priority.However, individual businesses will soon be able to purchase tests directly from pharamceutical firms, to help determine which employees could be best placed to return to work.
“It’s an unprecedented amount of resource that’s being put towards this. As you said, it’s like an ‘arms race’ so all of our communities come together,” says French.
“Obviously we can say it normal takes ‘x’ amount of years [to develop a vaccine] – here we’ve got maybe 10, 15, 20, maybe 100 times more people working on the same thing at the same time, so it’s more likely than ever before.”
The immunity catch
In the meantime, there is one big catch behind any antibody test – no matter how accurate.
“These tests tell you one thing – that you’ve survived a Covid-19 infection,” says Dr Bharat Pankhania, an expert in infectious diseases who has advised on previous SARS and Ebola pandemics.
“What it cannot tell you is how long this is going to remain valid for.”
Dr Bharat Pankhania, an expert in infectious diseases, insists we must remain cautious despite the development of antibody tests
Currently, there is no evidence to suggest the presence of antibodies guarantees full and long-lasting immunity from a future reinfection.
They could be effective for years – equally, they might only work for six months.
It has led the WHO to warn against ideas like ‘immunity passports’, which could allow people different levels of freedom depending on whether they have had the virus.
“By having these tests, could you actually be creating more cases if that means you then drop your guard?
Dr Bharat Pankhania
Just because you have antibodies doesn’t mean you’re not able to get infected or infect others,” adds Dr Pankhania.
“So my advice has always been to exercise infection control measures to a) protect your self and b) protect others.
“If anything, I want to save the businesses money by saying by having these tests, could you actually be creating more cases if that means you then drop your guard?”
French admits tests like hVIVO’s are not simply the” silver bullet” for getting our economy quickly back on its feet, but feels they could at least be part of the answer.
“There is still the potential that you can be reinfected, but the current data suggests it does offer some level of protection against being reinfected with Covid-19.
“As time progresses, we’ll be able to get a clearer picture of how long those antibodies remain protective.”
The moment of truth… and a final twist
Back at the lab, the MosaiQ 125 is fired into life and an hour later, I have my result.
I haven’t had the virus.
The results are in and I haven’t had coronavirus…
…But Max, our video producer, tested positive, despite having previously shown no symptoms
While by far the more likely outcome, I can’t help feel a bit surprised: as a healthy 29-year-old living in London, it seemed very possible that I could have had the bug and simply not realised.
If anything, it feels more disconcerting to know I still don’t have any biological protection.
“The good news is that you haven’t had Covid-19,” French points out. “It means your hand-washing regime and social distancing measures have been working.”
One final bit of news, however, catches us all off guard.
Later that afternoon, our video producer Max – who also got tested while filming our tour – is emailed his results.
He’s tested positive – the first to do so under hVIVO’s new system.
“It was a bit of a shock to me,” Max admits. “Because I haven’t experienced any symptoms whatsoever.
“No cough, no fever, no loss of sense of smell or taste.
“I guess what that makes clear to me is the importance of acting like you might have the virus – even if you feel like you don’t – just to prevent passing it on to others.”
You can view the video by clicking here