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BSI response to approval of an antibody test for COVID-19 by PHE

14 May 2020

Today, Public Health England have announced that they have approved an antibody test, made by the pharmaceutical company Roche, to assess whether individuals have antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in their blood. This may help to assess how many people in the population have had COVID-19. In response, the British Society for Immunology have issued the following statement. 

Professor Arne Akbar, President of the British Society for Immunology, said:

“Antibody tests are difficult to develop and news that Public Health England have approved the test from Roche is definitely a positive step forward.  A good antibody test needs to be extremely accurate to make sure that it both correctly identifies all people who have these antibodies and that it doesn’t give ‘false positives’ or incorrectly identify someone as having been exposed to COVID-19.  Public Health England will have carried out extensive examination on this test to look at these factors and it’s reassuring to see them give this the green light.

“However, developing a reliable antibody test is only the first step on the road to us being able to understand how any immunity against COVID-19 works and being able to use this knowledge to manage the spread of the disease.  A positive result to a reliable antibody test will tell us if that person has encountered the virus in the past and mounted an immune response.  However, it does not tell us if these antibodies will stop you getting sick from COVID-19 in the future or how long any protection generated might last – these are both factors that we do not yet know about COVID-19.  Additionally, the immune system is extremely complex and there are lots of ways that it can generate immunity, antibodies being only one.  We need to fully understand what ‘effective immunity’ against COVID-19 comprises to be able to better plan our response to managing the spread of this disease.”

For more information on immunology and COVID-19, read our expert summary produced by jointly with the Academy of Medical Sciences by our expert group, chaired by Professor Arne Akbar.