U.K. Buys 10 Million Antibody Tests from Roche and Abbott
Crocheted bears with protective face masks sit on a bed on the Covid Recovery Ward at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, U.K. (Photographer: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg)

U.K. Buys 10 Million Antibody Tests from Roche and Abbott

(Bloomberg) --

The U.K. agreed to buy 10 million coronavirus antibody tests from Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Holding AG and Abbott Laboratories Ltd, in a boost to Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he tries to ease the country back to normality.

The tests will be crucial to aid understanding of the spread of the disease, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Thursday at a press conference from 10 Downing Street. They will be rolled out in a phased way starting next week, he said.

“This is an important milestone and it represents further progress in our national testing program” Hancock said. “Knowing that you have these antibodies will help us to understand more in the future: if you are at lower risk of catching coronavirus, of dying from coronavirus and transmitting coronavirus.”

Making antibody tests widely available may help Britain lift its lockdown restrictions, because they show who has already had the virus and might have a degree of immunity. That would mean they could resume social contact with others. However, scientists still aren’t sure whether having antibodies means long-lasting protection from the disease.

In other developments on Thursday:

  • A trial began of a 20-minute test to show whether patients have coronavirus
  • A surveillance study carried out for the government suggested 17% of Londoners and 5% of the national population has had the virus, based on the presence of Covid-19 antibodies
  • Under political pressure, Johnson ditched a plan to make migrant workers in the NHS and care homes pay a health surcharge, promising them an exemption

Roche’s test, which was cleared by a U.K. health authority earlier this month, had previously garnered praise in Germany and the U.S. for its reliability. It won emergency use in the U.S. earlier this month and clearance for countries accepting Europe’s CE marking. Roche expects production to reach the high double-digit millions by June and pass the 100 million monthly threshold later this year.

U.K. Buys 10 Million Antibody Tests from Roche and Abbott

Abbott on May 15 said its test had been approved for use in the U.K. and that it could supply as many as 5 million a month. The test has also been approved in Canada.

The antibody tests will be free to access through the National Health Service and care workers would be prioritized, Hancock said. Johnson previously described antibody tests as a “game-changer” in the response to the virus.

Hancock said a separate coronavirus test developed by the manufacturer OptiGene has been put into trials from Thursday. It can show whether a patient has the virus within 20 minutes. “We will monitor its effectiveness very closely, and if it works, we’ll roll it out as soon as we can,” he said. A successful, fast test would help track the spread of the virus.

U-Turn

The OptiGene test has been “highly effective” when used in clinical settings, and will now be tried out in care homes, doctors’ offices and emergency units, the Health Department said. As many as 4,000 people will be tested in the county of Hampshire in southern England.

Despite the positive news on testing, Johnson also suffered a political blow Thursday when his government was forced into a U-turn over a health care surcharge to migrant NHS and care home workers that the premier had defended in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

At the weekly session of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer had asked Johnson if he thought the 400-pound charge -- set to rise to 624 pounds -- was “right.” The premier responded that while he appreciated the “importance” of the question, the charge was “the right way forward,” bringing 900 million pounds into the NHS a year.

But on Thursday he changed tack, with his office saying the premier has asked ministers to remove NHS and care workers from the surcharge “as soon as possible.”

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