Coronavirus: UK antibody testing lab will have 'major impact' on fight against COVID-19

6 June 2020, 18:57 | Updated: 7 June 2020, 06:46

This week has seen thousands of frontline NHS staff registering for, and being given, antibody tests for COVID-19.

But because this is such a new virus, the benefits of any antibodies which are present once someone has recovered from the illness are still unknown.

Professor Anthony Rowbottom, is a consultant virologist at The Royal Preston Hospital, whose pathology team have been tasked with setting up a COVID-19 antibody testing facility. Initially one of only four labs that have been chosen to do so.

"Not all antibodies are the same," he explains.

"We know that the antibody recognises different parts of the virus. What we don't know is how important those parts of the virus are in providing immunity."

It is also unclear how long any immunity provided by the antibodies could last. Estimates range from just a few months, to several years.

It is hoped that these tests will give scientists an understanding of how many of the population have actually been infected, which will in turn assist in the nationwide track and trace initiative.

Dr David Orr, clinical director of pathology and consultant microbiologist, said: "This news is most welcome and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals is now at the forefront of measuring both the active disease using the PCR swab test and the antibody test.

"Having both of these tests available will help us in our fight to beat COVID-19."

Dr Orr is himself one of the statistics. He has recently recovered after being infected with the virus.

So too has the hospital's medical director, Dr Gerri Scales.

She says her positive test for the antibodies has given her some peace of mind, but not a sense of invulnerability.

"I feel confident in that I know I've had the disease and that I've recovered from it and I have the antibodies," she said.

"But I don't feel confident enough to stop using the routine precautions that I would do."

The laboratory here can process up to 30,000 samples every day, although it is likely that COVID-19 antibody testing will initially use only a third of that capacity.

At the moment it is processing around 1,000 antibody tests daily.

"Our advanced automation will allow us to perform thousands of tests a day. The team work between the clinical biochemists and microbiologists will have a major impact in our fight against this wretched disease," says Dr Martin Myers, a consultant clinical biochemist.

The test involves blood samples being robotically processed to produce serum, which is then analysed for antibodies which will indicate exposure to coronavirus.

The virologists and biochemists do not like to refer to "accuracy" when talking about testing.

Rather, they refer to "specificity" (the correct identification of negatives) and "sensitivity" (the correct identification of positives).

Roche, the Swiss company who has manufactured the tests, says it will identify 100% of people who have had coronavirus, which means it has 100% sensitivity.

It also claims a specificity of over 99.8%, meaning it picks up virtually all people who have not had coronavirus. The government have already bought 10 million of the tests.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "We are rolling out millions of antibody tests to help us better understand how coronavirus is spreading across the country - which will be vital for future decisions about controlling the virus.

"All NHS and care staff will be offered an antibody test, and, in less than a week, more than 194,000 antibody tests have already been carried out."

Within three days of the test being made available, 3,000 of the Lancashire NHS Trust's 7,000 staff had registered to take it. Another logistical problem for the NHS to overcome in this most difficult of times.

:: Listen to the Daily podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Spreaker

The woman tasked with making it happen, with minimal disruption to patient care, is Claire Woods, the Trust's COVID testing Operational Lead

"The quicker we can roll it out the better," she says.

"Because it's a venous sample it's not as easy as just a capillary finger prick.

"So it's getting the ward staff to help out as well. Bleeding each other and taking those samples and making sure they're all logged in through the quadra-med (patient record) system. It is a timely process but we're just inputting the staff into to make sure we can achieve this."

"And is it achievable?" I ask. "Absolutely, yes," she replies.

The tests are initially for hospital staff and inpatients, then wider NHS workers will have access to them before they are made publicly available. The full roll out could take a number of months.

Those who take them, and test positive, know that it doesn't mean any real change to their current situation.

They'll still have to follow all the current guidelines and restrictions. But it may just give them a little more confidence in the short term.

And in the long term the data collected from these tests could be vital in understanding how this devastating pandemic has spread, and hopefully how it can be fought.