British firm behind £6 DIY finger prick coronavirus test which detects antibodies in the blood and ‘is 98% accurate’ claims its offer to make 500,000 of them a week for the NHS has fallen on deaf ears
- SureScreen Diagnostics said it had ‘done its best’ to engage with Government
- Derby-based firm is ready and willing to mass produce tests for NHS, it said
- Boris Johnson promised public he’d ramp up NHS’ testing capacity this week
- PM said Britain was in the market for antibody test but said it could take months
- Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?
The British firm behind a cheap DIY coronavirus test which is ‘almost 100 per cent accurate’ claims its offer to mass produce them for the NHS has fallen on deaf ears.
Boris Johnson promised to buy hundreds of thousands of ‘antibody tests’ which can tell if a person has ever suffered from the coronavirus.
The Government has warned it could take weeks or months to roll them out because it claims current ones on the market are not reliable.
But Derby-based SureScreen Diagnostics says it has developed a finger prick test that takes just 10 minutes to give a diagnosis and is correct 98 per cent of the time.
The £6 test detects antibodies, the immune system’s defence mechanism, which are produced to fight off the killer virus.
By measuring antibodies in the blood, doctors can detect whether someone has had the infection previously and is now immune to catching and spreading it.
SureScreen claims it has the capacity to make half a million tests a week to meet Boris Johnson’s ambitions plan to screen hundreds of thousands of people a day.
The pharmaceutical company said it had ‘done its best’ to reach out the health officials but had heard nothing back.
SureScreen Diagnostics says it has developed a finger prick test that takes just 10 minutes to give a diagnosis and is correct 98 per cent of the time
The private firm says its test has been validated and is already being used in the Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Turkey, UAE, Kuwait and Oman
Users then put their blood sample in a screening device and results are displayed in a similar fashion to an at-home pregnancy test within minutes
The finger prick test has been used by private healthcare companies across Europe, the Middle East and Australia.
One of the company’s directors, David Campbell, said the product could ‘probably save the NHS a lot of money’ and drastically reduce the number of infections.
Mr Campbell said: ‘Unfortunately, we haven’t really been able to get much traction in the UK with the NHS – which seems a bit of a shame.
‘We’re sending it abroad and we’re not able to use it here to really help reduce the number of infections.
‘We’ve done all the clinical work behind this test, we believe it has a really great part to play in terms of doing large amounts of screening to really help control the infection and get that data on where exactly this infection might break out.’
‘I suppose our message to the Government is, “We’re here and happy to do any trials and things like that to prove the accuracy.”
‘We’ve done them all ourselves already but we’d like to engage with partners to do trials in the UK as well.
‘We’re here to do what we can to reduce the spread of infection. We’ve done our best to engage with the Government and the NHS.’
The antibody test comes with a finger pricker which suspected patients use to extract a blood sample.
Speaking at his daily national address yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first British patient had been put into a clinical trial of a potential coronavirus therapy – the Government has so far refused to reveal details of the trial
So far more than 3,200 people in the UK have tested positive for coronavirus – although experts say a lack of testing means it’s likely more than 100,000 have it
Row over testing
WHAT IS THE UK DOING NOW?
Around 5,000 tests are being carried out a day.
Those are mostly patients who are already in hospital.
Some 100 GP surgeries have agreed to carry out tests on patients, as part of surveillance to asses the prevalence.
However, those who feel they have symptoms are being told to self-isolate without being routinely tested.
WHAT IS THE UK GOING TO DO?
Boris Johnson has vowed to increase tests to 25,000 a day, although he did not give a timescale.
He also said that health workers will be prioritised. Many have complained that they are being forced to stop work as they are unsure whether or not they have the disease.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
The message from the World Health Organisation is ‘test test test’, to avoid trying to fight an outbreak ‘blindfolded’. South Korea says it has got on top of an outbreak with stringent testing.
They put the sample in a screening device which then takes a few minutes to scour for antibodies that have been released by the immune system to fight coronavirus.
Users are then given a positive or negative result similar to how an at-home pregnancy test works.
Those who test positive will have already been infected and recovered – sometimes without knowing or showing symptoms – and are likely to be immune to reinfection.
The tests would be a game changer because they help work out who is safe to resume normal life without fear of contracting or spreading the virus.
Mr Campbell added: ‘We’ve had a range of tests looking at infectious diseases for many years.
So when we saw the coronavirus had started in China, the likelihood was it would spread quite quickly due to the long incubation time – so we set about developing a test for coronavirus.
‘We’re looking for two specific bi-markers which are elevated in people once they’ve contracted the infection and the test can be used in 10 minutes at the patient’s side very quickly, accurately and cost-effectively – giving you a result straight away and alleviating a lot of the issues you’ve got with people walking around not knowing they’ve got it.’
‘With this test you can pick people up three days after infection so that’s very important to know people have or have not got the infection.
‘It also alleviates the issue of self-isolation when they might have a cold or something like that and now you can test yourself to see if you’ve got coronavirus or not.
‘As you can imagine, a test like this which gives you results by the patient’s side very quickly and accurately has been hugely popular.’
The Department of Health has been contacted for a comment.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser said it could take weeks for antibody tests to be available on the NHS because ones on the market were not reliable enough.
Speaking at a press conference in London yesterday, Sir Patrick Vallance said: ‘Everyone’s looking for a serological test. They’ve got some in some parts of the world.
‘There are two types, one that requires a laboratory testing and the other is an easy to use thing that you can use yourself at home.
‘Currently we’re looking at both of those, but you’ve clearly got to have reliability. That’s the first thing. There’s a danger that you have something that isn’t reliable enough.’
Sir Patrick added the tests were being worked up ‘as we speak’. He said: ‘If you can get to mass testing, which would definitely be the idea, then that does become very useful.
Two men wearing suits were pictured carrying a box from ThermoFisher – which makes coronavirus tests that give results in four hours – outside Downing Street this week to discuss buying the tests
TESTING STOPPED THE VIRUS IN A SMALL ITALIAN TOWN
Italian authorities have managed to contain the killer coronavirus outbreak in a small town near Venice through a rigorous testing strategy.
Health bosses in Vò – 45miles (72km) east of the tourist hotspot – have had no new cases for 48 hours.
Officials conducted an experiment in the town, which is home to 3,300 people, to test and re-test all inhabitants.
The Financial Times reports the strategy meant everyone would be tested – even if they showed no symptoms.
Andrea Crisanti, an infectious disease specialist taking part in the experiment, told the newspaper the method allowed officials to get the clearest picture about the size of the outbreak.
The experiment began at the end of February, and the initial roll-out of tests showed around three per cent of patients were infected.
This dropped ten-fold when the second testing round was carried out 10 days later, after quarantining all of the infected and their contacts.
Professor Crisanti, who is on a sabbatical at the University of Padua, said: ‘In the UK, there are a whole lot of infections that are completely ignored.
‘We were able to contain the outbreak [in Vò] because we identified and eliminated the ‘submerged’ infections and isolated them. This is what makes the difference.
‘It answers the question of what proportion of patients are asymptomatic, a really important unknown in this.
‘Secondly it can tell you who’s had it and developed an antibody against it and therefore won’t catch it again.’
The tests would first be used on healthcare workers, who are essential in the fight against the virus.
Sir Patrick added: ‘That then becomes important in understanding who’s safe to go back and start working. Gives much greater flexibility in terms of the NHS.’
‘We shouldn’t dream that you can scale up hundreds of thousands of tests in a day. You can’t… it doesn’t happen overnight. It won’t be in a few days.’
At the moment, only around 5,000 tests are being conducted in the UK every day – mostly hospital patients and elderly people.
Britain is still using nasal swabs which take up to 48 hours to produce results, often leaving suspected patients in limbo.
It means the average person is not able to find out if they have coronavirus even if they have all the tell-tale symptoms.
But the Prime Minister assured the country yesterday that he was doing all he could to secure the antibody tests.
He said: ‘We’re in negotiations today to buy a so-called antibody test, as simple as a pregnancy test, which can tell whether you have had the disease.
‘It’s early days, but if it works as its proponents claim, then we will buy literally hundreds of thousands of these kits as soon as practicable.
‘It has the potential to be a total game-changer.’
In the UK and around the world, hopes are also growing that a drug cure for Covid-19 can be found – with promising results from several existing experimental treatments.
Meanwhile the Government’s health agency said trials of a coronavirus vaccine could begin within the next month, as it prepares to start evaluating a drug developed by Oxford University.
Scientists at Public Health England (PHE) could give the go-ahead for human testing well ahead of the usual time frame for drug development.
The health agency is only due to start preliminary evaluation of the vaccine on animals next week.
PHE researchers have collaborated with teams at Liverpool and Bristol universities to create an exact replica of Covid-19 for use in the testing process.
Those behind the vaccine have been given permission to commence human trials before animal tests are complete, the Guardian reported, in a bid to accelerate the development process.
Permission was granted after similar vaccines developed for other diseases were proved safe in human trials.
Professor Adrian Hill, head of the Jenner Institute at Oxford, told the Guardian: ‘We are conscious that a vaccine is needed as soon as possible and certainly by June-July when we expect a big peak in mortality.
He added: ‘This is not a normal situation. We will follow all standard trial safety requirements but as soon as we have a vaccine that’s working we anticipate there will be an accelerated pathway to get it deployed to save lives.
‘The more vaccine we can provide the sooner the better.’
The team at the Jenner Institute only began work on the drug on January 10 this year.
Earlier this month, Anthony Fauci, the director of the US’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he expected it would be at least 12 to 18 months before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available.
The Jenner Institute said it had based the drug on an ‘adenovirus vaccine vector’ based on an adenovirus isolated from a chimpanzee.
An adenovirus is a group of viruses that typically infect membranes of the eyes, respiratory tract, urinary tract, intestines and nervous system.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.
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