British health officials have told companies offering Covid-19 antibody tests to stop processing blood samples from patients in the UK, MailOnline can reveal.
Private tests to see whether people have already had the disease and recovered are now available from various online pharmacies from around £69.
Superdrug became the first high street retailer to offer the service and numerous websites offer similar tests, including Lloyds Pharmacy.
But now the Government, which has previously been accused of trying take control of coronavirus testing among the public, has slammed the brakes on private tests.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has allegedly told firms to stop analysing the blood samples people submit for testing.
Officials have yet to comment on the matter but at least two labs that process antibody tests are believed to be affected.
It is not clear why the decision has been taken or who made it but sources fear officials are trying to stop the sale of commercial tests.
It comes after Public Health England’s testing tsar, Professor John Newton, last week urged people not to pay for private tests and to wait for official ones.
The Government has bought 10million tests from pharmaceutical giant Roche and will start using them on NHS and care staff from this week.
MailOnline has approached the MHRA and Department of Health for comment, and officials are expected to meet tomorrow to discuss the issue.
Antibody tests are carried out by analysing blood samples to look for signs that the immune system has, in the past, reacted to the coronavirus and created memories of how to do so. These ‘memories’ are stored in substances called antibodies and the presence of ones specific to Covid-19 indicates that the person has had the illness (Stock image)
The way antibody tests work is that someone takes their own blood sample, or a medical professional takes it for them, and that is posted off to a lab.
There, qualified technicians analyse the blood to look for antibodies for the coronavirus, which are immune system substances created when someone is infected with the virus.
People then receive a result in which the presence of antibodies – a positive result – indicates they have already had the virus, or the absence that they have not.
The lab analysis stage is now being blocked by the MHRA, MailOnline understands.
The best-known company providing antibody tests, Superdrug, voluntarily stopped issuing its tests last week because of immense demand, so it could get through all the ordered samples.
WHAT IS AN ANTIBODY TEST?
An antibody test is one which tests whether someone’s immune system is equipped to fight a specific disease or infection.
When someone gets infected with a virus their immune system must work out how to fight it off and produce substances called antibodies.
These are extremely specific and are usually only able to tackle one strain of one virus. They are produced in a way which makes them able to latch onto that specific virus and destroy it.
For example, if someone catches COVID-19, they will develop COVID-19 antibodies for their body to use to fight it off.
The body then stores versions of these antibodies in the immune system so that if it comes into contact with that same virus again it will be able to fight it off straight away and probably avoid someone feeling any symptoms at all.
To test for these antibodies, medics or scientists can take a fluid sample from someone – usually blood – and mix it with part of the virus to see if there is a reaction between the two.
If there is a reaction, it means someone has the antibodies and their body knows how to fight off the infection – they are immune. If there is no reaction it means they have not had it yet.
It did not confirm whether the MHRA rule had affected its service.
A spokesperson said: ‘We have been contacted by MHRA and are in ongoing discussions with them.’
The move comes after the Government’s testing tsar, Professor John Newton, last week urged members of the public not to pay for antibody tests.
Professor Newton, a medical director at Public Health England, told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee on Friday that curious members of the public should wait until the Government could carry out approved tests on them.
The Government announced on Thursday that more than 10million antibody kits were being bought from pharmaceutical firm Roche for use in hospitals and care homes.
It comes after high street chains including Superdrug began to offer a home antibody test kit for £69.
Although the test it is using has been part-approved by PHE, Superdrug is asking people to take their own blood samples, which PHE has not approved.
The test is still legal however, and people can make their own decision about whether to take it.
When asked about the new home tests, Professor Newton said better tests would be available to the public soon.
He warned: ‘The public need to be aware that those tests are not the same as those we have evaluated and approved for use.
‘The laboratory-based tests have a much higher standard of accuracy. We wouldn’t recommend at the moment that people rely on the tests that are becoming widely available.
‘My advice would be to wait until we have better tests which will be available in a similar form very soon, though they are still under evaluation at the moment.’
Antibody testing has been ongoing throughout the pandemic and more than 230,000 people have been tested in a bid to try and work out what proportion of the population has had the virus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week announced that early results suggested almost one in five people in London – 17 per cent – have already had the coronavirus, according to surveillance testing.
Meanwhile the rate across the rest of the UK appeared to be around five per cent, he said, which would equal 2.85million people.
But none of the tests have so far been considered good enough to diagnose people on an individual basis – to tell them the results.
Tests made by giant pharmaceutical firms Roche and Abbott, however, have now been approved by the Government and will start to be used on medical and care staff this week.