In Depth

Coronavirus: how new 90-minute tests could fend off a second Covid-19 wave

Government rolling out the swab and DNA testing devices in hospitals, care homes and labs

Two game-changing new tests that can detect coronavirus within just 90 minutes are to be rolled out across the UK as early as next week, as the government prepares for a second spike in infections.

The “on-the-spot” swab and DNA tests can also identify winter infections such as the flu and other respiratory viruses, enabling patients to “follow the right advice to protect themselves and others”, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock. 

“Currently, three-quarters of [Covid] test results are returned within 24 hours and a quarter can take up to two days,” the BBC reports. But Hancock says that the speedier new tests will help “to break chains of transmission quickly”. 

How do the tests work?

A total of 450,000 of the rapid swab tests, called LamPORE, will be made available to care homes and laboratories in England next week, with millions more promised for later in the year.

The test “involves taking a sample of saliva, unlike existing methods which require invasive and difficult nose and throat swabs”, the Daily Mail explains. The devices used to evaluate the samples “come in desktop and palm versions and will be used in ‘pop-up labs’ as well as in existing facilities”, Sky News adds.

The announcement of the roll-out comes as “the government prepares to convene a round table meeting with care home providers who have been unable to access regular testing”, the broadcaster reports.

The second form of testing, to be available in NHS hospitals from September, analyses nasal swabs using machines supplied by DnaNudge, a research group linked to Imperial College London.

According to the university, the government has put in a £161m order for 5.8 million DnaNudge tests. The DNA test machines are already in use in eight London hospitals, with a further 5,000 of the machines to be issued this autumn.

“Eventually, it is hoped that the machines used for the new tests will be made more widely available, allowing them to be deployed in schools, care homes and businesses to provide regular screening for Covid-19,” The Times reports.

How accurate is the new testing?

DnaNudge claims that its test provide “98% sensitivity and 100% specificity”, reducing the risk of false negative results through a “control assay for human RNA” that tests for “inadequate swabbing”.

However, John Bell, a medical professor at Oxford University who has been advising ministers on coronavirus testing, “said they were just as accurate as the lab swabs currently in use in the UK”, the Daily Mail reports. 

The government has never confirmed the accuracy of its current tests, “but studies have indicated they give the correct diagnosis about 80% of the time”, the newspaper says.

And the reaction?

Health Secretary Hancock has described the tests as “life-saving”, adding that “the fact these tests can detect flu as well as Covid-19 will be hugely beneficial as we head into winter”.

“Officials hope [the tests] will flag up local outbreaks before they take hold, avoiding the need for local lockdowns such as that imposed in the Northwest last week,” according to the Daily Mail.

The authorities “will be able to track the spread” of both Covid and other viral illnesses, and also “carry out flu jab campaigns” in a bid to lessen the strain on the NHS, the newspaper adds.

The new tests have been hailed as “transformative” by medical experts. However, Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease and epidemiology at University College London, told the Today programme that while “rapid diagnosis was useful”, the most important thing was for people to self-isolate if they felt ill, the BBC reports.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow health minister Jon Ashworth welcomed the tests, but said it was “frankly negligent ministers have failed to deliver on their promise to regularly test care home residents and staff”. The criticism came days after Sky News reported that two major care home providers had struggled to access testing due to government delays. 

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