All eyes on UK’s 15-minute COVID test

Britain hopes rapid ‘pregnancy-style’ COVID-19 tests could help its population mingle freely by Christmas.

The proposed system would enable all citizens to perform a daily test, which could determine within 15 minutes whether they are infectious. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this could create a “freedom passport”, allowing people to return to mass indoor gatherings.

He said the saliva or swab test could give Britons “a kind of passport, a freedom to mingle with everyone else who is similarly not infectious, in a way that is currently not possible”.

“Through that ‘moonshot’ of daily testing – everybody gets a pregnancy-style test, a rapid turnaround test in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, you know whether you are infectious or not. That’s the opportunity and we’re aiming for that, we’re driving for that.

“I’m still hopeful … that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas.”

Mr Johnson admitted he was not 100 per cent sure the testing scheme will work. Indoor mass events such as concerts in theatres have been cancelled in the UK since March.

The ‘moonshot’ testing plan would allow venues to run at full capacity before a COVID-19 vaccine is available. Mr Johnson said the freedom pass would enable people to “behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus”.

The regime will be tested in Salford, near Manchester, next month, on audiences at indoor and outdoor venues.

“Employees at theatres, concert halls and other live event venues would be able to refuse entry to those who don’t have a COVID-19 ‘freedom pass’, or those who test positive at the door,” NME reports.

Reading music festival chief Melvin Benn told NME he expects festival season in the UK to go ahead in 2021, regardless of a vaccine.

“We don’t need a vaccination because we can work through the problem with a really good testing regime. We’ll be able to do this by next year,” he said. He expects widespread testing and tracing will be “the new norm” next year.

Britain is experiencing a coronavirus spike, with more than 2000 cases per day for much of last week. New rules enacted last week limit gatherings to six people, leading to concerns about what will be allowed at Christmas.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), expressed doubt about the proposal given Britain’s “huge problems” with lab capacity.

“And the notion of opening up society based on negative tests of those without symptoms needs to be approached with caution – both because of the high rate of ‘false negatives’ and the potential to miss those who are incubating the virus,” Dr Nagpaul told the Manchester Evening News.

The current testing regime is struggling to meet demand in the UK. The Financial Times reports “government testing laboratories across the UK are facing a backlog of nearly 200,000 COVID-19 tests and are having to send some samples abroad to help reduce the stress on the system”.

Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the proposal needed to be tested properly and carefully.

The ABC reports that Australian company KeyOptions has bought the rights to a 20-second COVID-19 test developed in England.

KeyOptions chief revenue officer Gavin Milton-White said the test took a saliva sample and ran it through a machine powered by AI software to ‘see’ the virus cells.

“Using a holographic microscope, it is able to physically see into the cell structure of the sample,” he told ABC Radio Brisbane.

“It can see what a COVID-19 cell looks like and it can say yes or no, this person has it, or they don’t.”

The test could be useful at borders and airports, but experts warn it is no replacement for the current swab tests.

Dr Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, says the rapid test has good attributes but less invasive tests often sacrifice quality and accuracy.

He pointed out that a negative test result, whether it was from a rapid or conventional test, did not mean a person had not been exposed to the virus.

“It just tells us that you don’t currently have enough of the virus for our test to detect,” Dr Griffin said.

“Whichever of these tests we use, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been exposed and won’t become positive.”

Mr Milton-White’s machine is undergoing testing and assessment by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. He expects “thousands of machines and millions of tests” in November.

There are already rapid tests in operation for a select few in Australia, Nine reports. But tests with results delivered within an hour are reserved for urgent cases only.

In NSW, 37 laboratories can perform rapid tests, which provide COVID-19 results in 60 minutes or less.

NSW Health Pathology’s director of public health pathology, Professor Dominic Dwyer, said they were an accurate and important part of the state’s testing armoury, but a global scarcity means the supply needs to be carefully managed.

“Rapid testing is used for high risk, high priority cases where an urgent diagnosis is needed to inform public health or clinical management,” a NSW Health Pathology spokeswoman said.

Nearly half of results from a standard COVID-19 test can be provided within 24 hours, and most within 31 hours.

Royal Flying Doctor Service pilot Michael Tregear was one of those eligible for a rapid test after he recorded a high temperature at the start of a shift.

But in Victoria, the reliability of a fever as a signpost of COVID-19 infection is being questioned. Only one in five people presenting with a fever tested positive.

“What it suggests to me is that we are seeing a lot more younger people with milder illness, so a fever may not be as prominent a symptom as it was in the first wave of cases,” Australian National University infectious disease expert Professor Sanjaya Senanayake told Nine.

“It also highlights that even if you don’t have a fever, but you have any kind of acute respiratory infections symptom like sore throat, cough, runny nose, then you should be getting tested.”

Is improved testing the key to greater freedom before a vaccine becomes available?

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