Jersey agrees to buy 500,000 coronavirus antibody tests – enough to test its population FIVE TIMES
Jersey has secured a deal to buy 500,000 coronavirus antibody tests – enough to test its population five times for signs of past infection.
Residents of the tiny Channel Island, which has had 255 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 14 deaths, could soon find out if they have already had the virus, and therefore have some form of immunity.
The first 10,000 tests arrived on April 13 and are being rigorously analysed by the government to make sure they are reliable enough.
Only then will the next 490,000 be flown in from across the world to start an ‘Island-wide testing programme’ and relieve the lockdown.
The test only takes 10 minutes, and is up to 97 per cent accurate, according to the manufacturer Healgen, a company based in China.
It is understood that is too low for the UK Government, who have yet to approve an antibody test to roll out nationwide.
Nine commercial tests have been analysed so far, costing millions of pounds, but they haven’t met the Government’s high standards.
Antibody testing is considered key for easing economy-crushing lockdowns because it will give an idea of how many people have been infected with the virus.
Jersey has secured a deal for 500,000 coronavirus antibody tests – enough to test its population five times for signs of past infection
The first 50,000 tests from Healgen – a US branch of Chinese company OrientGene
The tests in Jersey were secured by Gary Hopkinson, a former Jersey resident who runs a distributing business in California, and his business partner, Canadian Alex Schnaider.
They struck a deal to supply 50,000 Healgen antibody detection kits to the island earlier this month through a company they own jointly.
They are now working with the government in Jersey with the view of undertaking a mass screening programme.
WHY IS ANTIBODY TESTING IMPORTANT?
WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST?
Unlike tests to diagnose diseases, antibody tests show who has been infected and recovered.
The body makes antibodies in response to many illnesses and infections, including other coronaviruses.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RAPID TESTS AND ASSAYS?
Some companies are developing finger-prick tests that get results in minutes. These are called immunoassays and will form the basis of home testing kits.
Others are developing far more accurate tests called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays (ELISA) that require sending blood samples to a lab for analysis.
HOW CAN ANTIBODY TESTS HELP END LOCKDOWNS?
Antibody tests can help calculate what portion of the population has already been infected, as well as whether infections were mild or severe.
Governments and companies could use antibody tests to determine who would most likely be safe to return to work and public interactions, and whether it is safe to lift stay-at-home orders all at once in some regions or in stages based on infection risk.
People with negative antibody tests or very low antibody levels would likely have higher risk of infection than people with high antibody levels.
DO ANTIBODIES TO THE NEW CORONAVIRUS CONFER IMMUNITY?
While antibodies to many infectious diseases typically confer some level of immunity, whether that is the case with this unique coronavirus is not yet known.
And how strong immunity might be, or how long it might last in people previously infected, is not clear.
Scientists cannot know with certainty that reinfection is not possible until further research.
Mr Hopkinson said: ‘With 50,000 kits and 100,000 population, Jersey will be the most tested nation on earth by a mile.’
An extra 150,000 tests from another supplier are due to arrive imminently, meaning there would be two per person. A further 250,000 kits have been ‘promised’, so the islanders can be tested multiple times. It is unclear who makes these kits or how accurate they are.
The more times the population is tested, the more data the government will secure. It will help officials understand how the disease has spread on the island, home to fewer than 100,000 people.
But the first set of kits first need to be tested for reliability which will take up to ten days, a statement from the government said. It did not clarify how accurate it would like the test to be.
‘Once the kits are confirmed as offering reliable results, they will be used to support an island-wide testing programme and further kits will be ordered as necessary,’ it added.
The first 50,000 tests from Healgen – a US branch of Chinese company OrientGene – aren’t home-testing kits. They would be conducted by a healthcare worker.
The tests look for two kinds of antibodies: IgM and IgG. The body quickly produces IgM antibodies for its initial attack against infections, and makes IgG antibodies slower for long-term protection.
Healgen says the sensitivity of the IgM test is 87.9 per cent and IgG is 97.2 per cent, compared with the golden standard lab test.
That’s based on an evaluation of 113 blood samples obtained from patients exhibiting pneumonia or respiratory symptoms.
Because it is not 100 per cent accurate, it means some results would be incorrect and could wrongly tell people they have already had the disease, giving them a false sense of security.
However, with half a million tests secured for just 100,000 citizens, any findings can be checked twice over, maybe more.
Mr Hopkinson said: ‘Jersey is actually the perfect place to do an immunology study. So, there is nowhere quite like Jersey that can do this and it can hopefully open up its economy again quickly, based on doing these tests.’
Mr Hopkinson has been supplying kits to various countries and made the decision to help his home island after his sister said that Jersey was short of testing equipment.
The Healgen test uses a drop of blood to give a result within 10 minutes. It will appear like a pregnancy test
Commercial antibody tests give a result on an easy-to-read stick. Pictured, a Boditech Med Inc. test from South Korea
Jersey began doing swab tests for citizens with symptoms on 8 April. This type of test, called a PCR test, is used to directly detect the presence of a virus, rather than the presence of the body’s immune response, or antibodies.
Antibody tests are designed to detect whether a patient has ever had COVID-19. It may show a positive result even if the individual never had symptoms of the virus.
Dr Ivan Muscat, Medical Officer for Health, Government of Jersey, said: ‘Antibody testing kits are an important weapon in our fight against COVID-19.
‘With such a high global demand for these kits, we are pleased that our first batch has arrived.
‘We are living in extraordinary times and there is immense global pressure to get an idea of immunity within populations.
‘While we have sourced the test kits through a robust process, which included evidence of validation through an independent review system, we first need to undertake a rapid local assessment of the accuracy of the test.
‘Following a satisfactory outcome, we can then use these as part of our plan for an Island-wide testing programme. This will help us determine the pattern of infection across the Island.’
Meanwhile, the UK Government is still scrambling to find a commercial antibody test that reaches its standards.
Ministers said a home testing kit was in the pipeline, allowing Britons to do a finger-prick type test themselves to see if they have had the virus.
GOVERNMENT HAS ONLY TESTED 5,000 BLOOD SAMPLES FOR ANTIBODIES
The UK Government has conducted less than 5,000 antibody tests so far, and just 51 yesterday.
Health chiefs have plans to conduct the ‘biggest surveys in the world’ to discover how many of the population have some sort of immunity to the virus.
On April 3, the PM’s spokesman said 3,500 antibody tests could be carried out per week to get an idea of how the virus was spreading.
However, since that day, only 4,943 had been carried out.
It’s miles off the 5,000 per week target the Department of Health set. The DHSC said it would be expanding ‘during April so that we have the potential to test around 5,000 samples per week’.
But so far, none of the tests have proven to be accurate enough by the Government’s standards.
Public Health England has refused to reveal what the Government considers an acceptable level of accuracy.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency – which usually authorises diagnostic tests – says no test under 98 per cent accurate is safe for mass-use.
Oxford University scientists in charge of analysing the tests found home antibody tests were accurate between 55 to 70 per cent of the time.
Antibody tests analysed in a lab, called ELISA tests, were correct 93 to 100 per cent of the time.
Professor Sir John Bell, from Oxford University, said the testing kits he has examined so far ‘have not performed well’ and ‘none of them would meet the criteria for a good test’.
Dashing hopes of lockdown ending any time soon, Sir John said it would take ‘at least a month’ before antibody tests would be available for the public.
Separately, Public Health England are using antibody testing in a laboratory setting for research to understand how many in the UK have the infection fighting cells.
It’s so far screened 5,000 blood samples since February – miles off the 5,000 per week target.
Department of Health data shows only 51 were carried out at the Porton Down laboratory yesterday.
It’s barely a scratch on the widespread schemes being run by other countries who are desperate to get out of their lockdowns.
Health chiefs in the Netherlands, for example, said they would test 10,000 samples weekly from March 19 using the blood donation service Sanquin.
The Italian region of Lombardy began performing 20,000 coronavirus immunity tests per day yesterday, starting with health workers.
The governor of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, said the region had been conducting a ‘search for reliable serological tests’ and have developed one with a hospital in Milan. It is believed to be from diagnostic firm Diasorin, but this is not confirmed.
Andorra has ordered enough antibody tests to screen its whole population of 77,000 nearly twice over, health minister Joan Martínez Benazet said at the beginning of April.
The tests are ‘absolutely reliable’ by the authority’s standards, he added, and will arrive from South Korea via Spain in the next two weeks.
HOW WILL THE UK USE ANTIBODY TESTING?
Antibody testing is part of the fourth pillar of the Government’s testing scheme called surveillance, which began at the end of February.
Blood samples are being collected by Public Health England to be analysed at their Porton Down science campus near Salisbury.
It uses a high accuracy antibody test operated by Public Health England to find out what proportion of the population have had the virus.
The study will also give an idea of how many people with COVID-19 experience no or very few symptoms. This would help research into how much transmission is caused by asymptomatic cases.
Research on antibodies
The Government is also conducting national mass population sampling over the coming months to research immunity to COVID-19.
The aim is to enrol 16,000 to 20,000 people who will undergo repeat testing using home kits. This roughly equates to one in 330,000 people.
Over the course of six months to a year the results will show whether or not the antibodies produced as a result of contracting COVID-19 give protection against the virus and for how long.
This is a grey area at the moment – scientists hope a person cannot be reinfected with the virus, but they can’t be certain until the know more about the immunity antibodies give.
Finding a home antibody test for the public
Giving an antibody test to the masses is the key to getting out of lockdown, scientists believe.
Britons have also been promised a home antibody testing kit that they could buy from Amazon or Boots – on the condition on a commercial one would pass reliability tests by scientists at Oxford University.
But the team of academics have yet to approve any, meaning it could now be months before they are used in the UK, if at all.
The tests were said to give ‘false positive’ results too often, meaning they incorrectly tells people they are immune. This might give people false confidence that they can’t catch the bug and put them at risk of infection.
After being stung by the faulty Chinese antibody tests, the UK Government is said to now be looking for ‘home grown’ devices made by British firms.