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Why can’t anybody find an antibody?

This week the British government has admitted that the three million antibody tests it bought from China don’t work. Spain, Czechia and Slovakia are in a similar position. Touted as key to exiting the restrictive lockdown across the world, there was also hope that they would be a saving grace for lab groups stuck with falling volumes.

“None of the tests we have validated would meet the criteria for a good test as agreed with the MHRA [regulatory body]. This is not a good result for test suppliers, nor for us,” said UK government’s life sciences advisor John Bell in a damning blog exploring the pitfalls of  commercial tests on the market.

“One strand of the UK government strategy has been to use home testing kits to allow people to test and see whether they have long term immunity and hence can confidently go back to work,” he adds. Antibody testing doesn’t say whether the patient is suffering from COVID-19 but can say whether he/she has done so in the past. Commentators say that “large-scale” testing is the most useful tool that governments can wield to allow people back in normal living patterns.

Very few countries have embarked on widespread diagnosis testing, with supply shortages meaning that resources are saved for those who are critically ill. Many private labs have not been allowed to test enough to compensate for the expected 30% drop in routine volumes.

The UK is not alone in finding existing tests lacking. Spain, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have said the antibody tests they ordered don’t work and have sent many back. The Brits are at least resolving to put its scientists and the supplier’s scientists together in a room to see if they can jointly fix the problem. Many expect it to be another three months before a viable test is ready for mass production.

Finland is the outlier here. It has just started a nationwide randomised antibody testing programme. That test has been developed jointly by researchers at Helsinki University and scientists in America. We await to see how accurate that test is.

Where does that leave Europe’s for-profit lab groups? The problem here is that many governments are hoping the antibody tests will be done at home, like pregnancy tests, and therefore no analysis from labs is necessary. The problem with the tests so far appears to be the ‘home-testing’ part so governments might have to compromise with tests where samples are taken at home but analysed centrally.

With the former, the independent lab networks will have a negligible role to play and will have to await routine volumes to pick up again after the lockdowns are lifted. With the latter, there might just be a hope of large(r) returns.

We would welcome your thoughts on this story. Email your views to Rachel Lewis or call 0207 183 3779.