The breakthrough in the race to develop what Boris Johnson calls ‘the people’s test’ came through a combination of forensic detective work and cutting-edge diagnostic research at Oxford University.
To design an immunity test with the necessary degree of accuracy – as close as possible to 100 per cent – scientists on the project needed to analyse the blood of those who had been infected with Covid-19, but displayed few, if any, symptoms.
This is where superspreaders such as British businessman Steve Walsh have played a critical role.
CRITICAL ROLE: Steve Walsh caught the virus in Singapore
Mr Walsh, one of the UK’s first superspreaders, contracted the virus at a business conference in Singapore, before going to the French Alps for a skiing holiday and then returning to his home in Hove, East Sussex – where he was diagnosed on February 6.
By tracing the network of people who came into contact with the 53-year-old – and everyone those people came into contact with – scientists were able to test the antibody levels in those who had only been mildly infected.
Crucially, the experts, who include Sir John Bell, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Medicine and a world-renowned immunologist, were also able to analyse the blood of sufferers in the early phase of the disease, thus facilitating the ultra-sophisticated ‘baselining’ of ‘neutralising antibody’ levels.
It means Professor Bell and his team are confident that the £10 tests can produce a positive result on immunity – indicated by a double line on the reader – within 20 minutes of taking a pinprick of blood, and to an accuracy level of more than 99 per cent.
The flawed immunity tests which Ministers had imported from China and other countries at the cost of several million pounds were based on the analysis of the blood of patients who had been admitted to hospital with the virus.
This meant the diagnostic techniques were less sensitive, with the tests only able to pick up between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of people who had an immune response to Covid-19.
FLAT OUT: Blue Earth’s Jonathan Allis
Six weeks ago, with the realisation dawning on Downing Street that the imported immunity tests were not fit for purpose, Mr Johnson held a ‘testing summit’ to discuss plans for testing both the immunity of the population and the roll-out of the tests for people who are carrying the virus – now the subject of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s contentious 100,000- a-day target.
A source close to the project said: ‘Boris was very enthusiastic, particularly about the immunity ones, which he called ‘the people’s test’.
‘It raised the cheering prospect of workers being able to brandish an immunity ‘certificate’ or even a wristband and go straight back into normal life.’
As Prof Bell and his team refined the test, entrepreneur Jonathan Allis, the founding CEO of Blue Earth Diagnostic, was tasked by Mr Hancock and Health Minister Lord Bethell – aided by PR guru Roland Rudd – with establishing its mass production through the Rapid Testing Consortium.
CONFIDENT: Immunologist Sir John Bell
The consortium aims to harness the mass-production techniques of the diagnostic companies Abingdon Health in England, BBI Solutions in Wales, Omega Diagnostics in Scotland and CIGA Healthcare in Northern Ireland, which have the combined capacity to produce up to 50 million immunity tests every year.
But with Mr Hancock struggling to hit his own target for testing people who fear they have the virus, the consortium is likely to face scepticism about its ability to produce the hoped-for million tests a week by the summer.
Yesterday, most tests had been booked up through the Government website within an hour of it reopening, and home-testing kits became unavailable less than 15 minutes after bookings began again.
However, the project source insisted the companies in the consortium have the capacity to ‘scale up’ production ‘in every corner of the UK’ by adapting the so-called ‘lateral flow’ blood tests which are already in use for conditions such as HIV.
The source said: ‘Jonathan and the team have been working up to 20-hour days, seven days a week – literally around the clock. There is a huge determination to achieve this as quickly as is humanly possible.’
The Treasury is bankrolling the project, and the scientists expect the Government to buy up the kits before deciding how to allocate them after key workers have received them first.
Under plans which are still in their infancy, users would take a picture of the positive result and send it to a central Covid ‘hub’ which would enter the findings on a national database, accessible on a mobile phone app.
The experts also hope that mass, country-wide testing will also shed more light on the mysteries of Covid-19 immunity: how long it lasts, and, most worryingly, whether people can catch the virus more than once.