A British-made Covid test that gives results in just five minutes is expected to be at the heart of Boris Johnson’s plans to reopen live events, nightclubs, schools, and hospitality, HuffPost UK can reveal.
The lateral flow test developed by Yorkshire biotech firm Avacta boasts a higher accuracy than American devices currently imported in huge numbers by the government, but is also much faster.
The UK has spent more than £1bn on tests made by the US company Innova, which has a test result time of around 30 minutes.
But the rival Avacta test gives results in between five and 10 minutes, a factor that could suddenly make viable so-called “Operation Moonshot” plans to open up theatres, cinemas and sports stadiums.
It is understood that the final assessment of the British test has been conducted by the government’s Porton Down laboratory and industry insiders predict that it will be published either to coincide with the PM’s Covid roadmap or soon after.
Johnson this week himself floated the idea of the impact such tests could have, saying lateral flow tests could be used for “the toughest nuts to crack – theatres or nightclubs, for example – areas of the economy that we couldn’t get to open last year”.
Most of the controversial Test and Trace service’s £22bn budget is now going on testing rather than contact tracing, with nearly 90% of its £7bn extra from the Treasury going on lateral flow tests.
The bulk of test spending has gone to US firm Innova, which manufactures its products in China, but British biotech companies are seen by several government insiders as better for the taxpayer and the UK economy.
Once regulators approve the Avacta test, it is expected to be ready for a rollout in huge numbers across the country by early April.
Specialist British manufacturers BBI and Abingdon, which produce the Avacta-designed test, are on track to help meet a target of providing two million tests a day after Easter.
Another UK test developed by a company called Mologic offers results within 10 to 15 minutes and the Department of Health and Social Care is currently waiting on trial results to give either or both approval.
Omega Diagnostics in Scotland has been selected by the government to manufacture the British tests, along with Mologic spin-off Global Access Diagnostics.
In an example of the high degree of partnership and collaboration now in the UK industry, Mologic has partnered with Avacta to produce its tests and to get EU regulatory approval. The companies also aim to provide rapid tests to low and middle income countries around the world.
One criticism of lateral flow tests has been their reliability, with fears that while they are excellent at picking up positive asymptomatic cases, they can produce “false negatives” depending on the sensitivity of the test.
An initial evaluation of the Avacta test conducted on patients in a Spanish hospital found that it had a “sensitivity” of 96.7% on cases with high viral loads, seen as the key measure by government advisers Sage.
On a similar measure, the Innova test had a sensitivity of 78.3%.
The high degree of confidence in accuracy would for the first time mean that lateral flow tests could be used as “green light” devices to allow people to do things rather than their current “red light” use to weed out and isolate asymptomatic cases.
The super-fast results are also seen as transformative by some in the industry, with sources saying that the time has been brought down considerably over the past few months after experimentation with hundreds of different test strips.
Critics had complained that the 30-minute wait time for an Innova test made it impractical for theatre, nightclub or football match attendance, but the five-minute test means “entry to venues will be truly rapid”, one insider said. “This is of huge significance to the economy.”
Under one “ticket and test” scenario considered within government, lateral flow tests would be sent out with tickets to live events and used the day beforehand, with a positive result enabling a refund as well as triggering isolation.
But for nightclubs and theatres, a five minute test conducted on entrance could now be viable with the new technology.
Parents too will benefit from the speed of the British test, as ministers plan twice-weekly home tests conducted on pupils once schools return after March 8. It is expected that parents would take a simple “breakfast time” nose swab before getting a quick result.
Behind the scenes work has gone on for months to pivot from the US tests, which are imported from China on Virgin Atlantic jets, to home-grown and made rival products.
Issues such as tech transfer agreements and the creation of a common standard have delayed development.
One clue to the closeness of the working between the UK government and biotech firms is that the DHSC has loaned manufacturing equipment to Omega Diagnostics to allow it to expand its capacity.
Test and Trace has now shifted dramatically towards the use of lateral flow tests in its service, and they now outnumber laboratory-based PCR tests.
A record 2,400,724 lateral flow device (LFD) tests for Covid-19, or rapid tests, were conducted in England in the week to February 10, according to the latest Test and Trace figures. By contrast, 1,295,051 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were conducted in the same week.
The UK Rapid Antigen Test Consortium, a growing coalition of industry scientists and manufacturers, has been created to secure lateral flow tests and manufacturing capability for the UK.
One of its members, SureScreen Diagnostics, this month signed a contract for 20m tests that produce a result in under 30 minutes. SureScreen’s were the first British tests to be validated in the laboratory by Public Health England (PHE).
In a separate development, Nottingham-based SourceBio International has taken over the contract for a pilot scheme using mobile testing labs for “surge testing” of new variants in the UK.
UPDATE: A spokesperson for the DHSC said: “With up to a third of individuals with COVID-19 not displaying symptoms, broadening asymptomatic testing is essential to breaking the chains of transmission.
“All lateral flow tests used by the UK government go through a rigorous evaluation process by the country’s leading scientists which means they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with COVID-19 who could pass on the virus without realising.”
A previous version of the Avacta test, which relied on saliva rather than nasal swabs, did not pass testing by Porton Down last month. However, the latest updated version has shown excellent preliminary results and is currently being assessed.
FEBRUARY 22 UPDATE: Avacta said in a statement that Porton Down had assessed its nasal swab test, which did not rely on saliva.
“The evaluated test was the anterior nasal swab test that has subsequently generated the excellent initial clinical performance data outlined above. However, in its evaluation Porton Down used artificial samples and did not use clinical samples,” it said.
“We believe an accurate, rapid antigen test, that has been appropriately validated, will help to limit the spread of the coronavirus and support the safe return to work and play.
“In the UK, the DHSC is a potential customer and partner in the roll out of such a validated test. While Avacta continues to be in dialogue with the DHSC, and with other organisations in the UK and abroad, with a view to future supply of its rapid antigen test, it is prioritising the full clinical validation of its nasal swab-based SARS-CoV-2 rapid antigen test as a pre-requisite for CE marking and broad commercialisation.”