‘Abysmal response’ to corona – experts warn antibody tests are ‘invalid’

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Junior doctors demonstrate outside Downing Street during their strike for safe contracts

EXPERTS have heavily criticised the Tories’ ‘ad hoc system’ for coronavirus tracking, testing and contact tracing, stating that the government’s ‘abysmal response’ means that many suspected cases will have been missed while other professionals are questioning whether the anti-body tests fundamentally can actually tell us anything at all.

In a special report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) yesterday, Peter Roderick and colleaues from Newcastle University question why the government has eroded England’s established system of local infectious disease control and created a parallel system which relies on private companies for testing and contact tracing.

They are concerned by clear and reported failings in this parallel system, warning that many suspected cases will have been missed, and arguing that contact tracing and testing ‘should be led by local authorities and coordinated nationally’.

Historically, England’s system of communicable disease control has relied on experience and close cooperation between local health services and local authorities, they explain.

That local system has gradually been eroded over several decades. But instead of prioritising and rebuilding this system at the start of this epidemic, the government has created a separate system which steers patients away from GPs, avoids local authorities, and relies on commercial companies and laboratories to track, test, and contact trace.

Questioning the validity of the antibody test, Oxford GP Dr Helen Salisbury commented: ‘We don’t know what the results mean. There are increasing numbers of people who are fairly sure that they have had the virus and some who have even had positive tests for the actual antigen when they were ill who are getting negative antibody tests which is really interesting. So although having a positive test may tell you that you did have it, having a negative test, we are not sure about that.

‘We normally do tests when we know what to do with the answers. I am really quite concerned that patients who understandably want to have this test are going to be looking to GPs to both counsel them before they have had a test and explain the results afterwards and that is going to take up a lot of our time, and we do not have the answers to give them.

‘So, everyone really wanted there to be this idea of an immunity passport: You have got antibodies, you are safe. It is just not true, we just don’t know that, and people are going to be very confused.

‘We can’t as clinicians and scientists, work out a good reason for this sudden “everyone can have an anti-body test rhetoric”, because it does not make sense.

‘It does, however, make sense to be doing lots of tests in the context of research, if we can put together who has had symptoms, who has had a positive test after having the virus before, what do their antibodies look like and what happens next.

‘If we collected all that data and did research on it, which people are doing, that would make sense.

‘But just to roll out the test for anyone who would like it, which is really what we have been told, does not make any sense at all.’

William Irving, Professor of Virology, Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham agreed. He said: ‘When you have a test where when the result is negative it makes no difference and when the result is positive it makes no difference, there isn’t really a huge logic to doing the test in the first place.

‘We are under pressure, in the NHS, to be careful with resources, to only do tests which are meaningful, which the clinician can interpret, which will help with patient care.

‘The antibody test fails on those accounts.

‘The presence of antibodies does not tell you anything about whether the patient is protected against any future infection.’