What is the fast new coronavirus test? Key facts about the rapid antigen test
Posted on November 5th, 2020

DAVID CHILD  Courtesy Evening standard

The rapid antigen tests will be vital in improving the testing capacity of lower and middle-income countries

A new form of test that can diagnose Covid-19 in minutes is set to be rolled out across the globe, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced.

The test will provide results in 15-30 minutes, rather than hours or days, and dramatically expand the capacity to detect coronavirus cases in low- and middle-income countries, the global health body said on Monday.

It is hoped that will allow health care workers to get a better grip on where the virus is circulating in poorer countries and therefore assist containment efforts.

The development comes as the global death toll from Covid-19 continues to climb having now already surpassed the one million mark.

So, here’s what you need to know:

The antigen test will provide results in 15-30 minutes (AP)

How does the new test work?

The antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests are being produced by two drugs manufacturers – Abbott and SD Biosensor – and work by detecting proteins found on the surface of the virus.

The tests look similar to pregnancy tests and can yield results within 30 minutes, simply displaying two blue lines for a positive result.

How do they differ from other tests?

The main difference between rapid-antigen tests and nasal/throat swabs and finger-prick blood tests is the antigen tests do not require laboratory processing to produce results.

This means they are able to detect coronavirus infection within minutes, compared to the hours or days necessary for the genetic tests, known as PCR tests, to turnaround results.

They are also far cheaper, with each test costing just 5 US dollars (£3.90) each for low- and middle-income countries, however, they are generally considered less accurate than laboratory-based tests.

The companies which manufacture the tests claim they are about 97 per cent accurate, but that is in optimal conditions.

The non-profit Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (Find) puts their sensitivity between 80 per cent and 90 per cent in real-world conditions.

How important are these new tests in the fight against coronavirus?

The rapid antigen tests will be vital in improving the testing capacity of lower and middle-income countries who lack enough laboratory resources or trained health workers to properly carry out PCR tests.

They will also allow health care workers to get a better grip on where the virus is circulating in poorer countries, in hopes of following up with containment and other measures to stop it.

Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, a partnership that works to end epidemics, said the tests represent a significant step” in the effort to combat and contain the virus on a global scale.

He said: They’re not a silver bullet, but hugely valuable as a complement to PCR tests.”

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile hailed the antigen tests, described by the WHO as “highly portable, reliable, and easy to administer”, as good news” in the fight against Covid-19.

When will the tests be rolled out?

The WHO has agreed a deal with drugs manufacturers Abbott and SD Biosensor as well as the charitable Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, alongside other partners, to deploy 120 million rapid-diagnostic tests over six months.

The deal spans 133 countries, including several in Latin America, which is currently the hardest-hit region by the global pandemic in terms of fatality and infection rates.

Catharina Boehme, chief executive of Find, said the initial rollout would take place across 20 countries in Africa, starting in October this year.

What do the new tests mean for the UK?

While poorer countries will primarily benefit from the rapid-antigen tests, wealthier countries who have signed up to the Access to Covid tools initiative, which the UK has, will also be given access to them.

They represent a potential boon to the Government’s Operation Moonshot scheme for mass testing, though it is not clear if the UK intends to buy these tests.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously said mass testing was the nation’s best chance” of reducing social distancing measures without having a vaccine.

What have other people said about antigen tests?

Former prime minister Tony Blair has called on the Government to adopt the rapid antigen tests, saying they could enable an extra 300,000 coronavirus tests to be carried out every day within a few weeks.

However Baroness Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, warned companies and individuals could be forced to foot the bill for the swift turnaround tests as they were too unreliable for use within the health service.

But she said those without symptoms might choose to pay for the tests to act as a kind of Covid-19 passport to allow them to take part in non-socially distanced activities.

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