UK government focus on antibody testing brings opportunity costs


The UK had unrealistic expectations for antibody testing; as early as April health secretary Matt Hancock was suggesting that antibody testing could form the basis for immunity passports even though it is still uncertain whether and for how long SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to further infection. Prime minister Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for antibody tests, which he called a “game-changer”, led the UK government to pay £16 million up front for tests from two Chinese companies, which proved in analysis at the University of Oxford to be too inaccurate to be of any value. In May, the UK government closed a £13.46 million contract until November 2020 with the Swiss company Roche for its new test; however, Public Health England found it was only 83.9% sensitive if the test was conducted less than 21 days after the onset of symptoms and 86.7% sensitive if conducted later, though it was 100% specific, meaning that more than 15% of those testing negative would receive incorrect results. The focus on rapid, automated antibody testing brought with it the opportunity cost of failing to build much-needed testing for current infections among patients and health care workers.
Writer: Matt Reynolds
Publication: Wired