Home Covid tests that give results within 30 minutes look set to become a reality after new research found that they are both accurate and sensitive enough to pick up asymptomatic cases.
Clinical evaluation by Public Health England and the University of Oxford showed that so-called “lateral flow tests” – which don’t need a laboratory for processing – detect 95% of cases where there is a high viral load.
The rapid tests are currently being trialled in Liverpool and the latest breakthrough on their ability to spot the virus was seized on by ministers as a major step forward in the fight against the pandemic.
The PHE/Oxford study found they are effective in identifying people without symptoms but who are infectious and are most likely to transmit the disease.
The fast turnaround time also allows positive people to isolate quickly to reduce the virus’s spread.
Liverpool is leading the way with a whole-city testing approach, but Boris Johnson on Monday announced plans to send 67 other local areas 10,000 rapid coronavirus tests each to help critical workplaces, schools and universities.
At present, swabbing and processing of the tests must be conducted at a dedicated testing site by a trained personnel, but the Department of Health and Social Care said home-testing was now a realistic possibility.
“The devices are designed to be intuitive and require minimal training to operate, and PHE and the University of Oxford are now looking at how this test could be self-administered,” DHSC said.
The findings also boost plans to routinely test all NHS and care home staff on a regular basis, as well as making more viable the government’s “operation moonshot” programme of allowing the public to visit sports arenas and theatres and other mass events if they get a negative test.
If the test is negative, individuals can then go about their usual life. If the test picks up a positive case, they are then asked to take another test – known as a PCR test – to confirm the virus.
PHE’s Porton Down lab and University of Oxford put a number of different tests through an assessment process, with four making the final grade.
They found the “specificity” of the tests – the proportion of people without coronavirus who will get a negative test – was recorded as 99.68%, with an overall false positive rate of 0.32%.
The “sensitivity” – the proportion of people with the disease who will get a positive test – is 76.8%.
But crucially, the lateral flow test detects over 95% of individuals with high viral loads, and has a minimal difference between the ability to spot the virus in people showing symptoms and those without symptoms.
Sir John Bell, of Oxford University, said: “The data in this validation report demonstrates that these inexpensive, easy to use tests can play a major role in our fight against Covid-19.
“They identify those who are likely to spread the disease and when used systematically in mass testing could reduce transmissions by 90%. They will be detecting disease in large numbers of people who have never previously even received a test.”
Health minister Lord Bethell said: “It is right we’ve taken a dual-track approach to evaluating this technology – by piloting them in the field so we can understand how to best to make these tests available, and by getting our world-leading academics and clinicians to undertake rigorous evaluation of their ability to detect the virus.
“I’m delighted that both are already demonstrating that lateral flow tests can be the reliable, highly sensitive technology we need to help get this virus under control, and return to as close to normality as possible.”
Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser to the government’s Test and Trace service, said: “These tests are proving to be accurate and reliable. And, importantly they’re able to detect Covid-19 in people without symptoms who could unknowingly be passing the virus onto others.
“We are confident that these new tests, which have been rigorously evaluated, will make a real difference in how we protect people from this disease and help break chains of transmission.”