A new antibody surveillance scheme will be introduced in the UK to improve understanding of immunity against COVID-19 from vaccination and infection.
Launching on Tuesday 24 August, the antibody testing programme will be available for all UK adults to opt into when booking a PCR test through the NHS Test and Trace system. Two at-home finger prick antibody tests will be sent to up to 8,000 people per day who opt in and then receive a positive PCR. The completed tests will then be sent back to a lab for analysis.
The UK Health Security Agency will work alongside NHS Test and Trace testing services in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to track levels of antibodies in positive cases across the UK. The data collected will help to estimate the proportion of those who caught COVID-19, despite developing antibodies as a result of having a vaccine or previously contracting the virus.
The programme could also provide insight into any groups of people who do not develop an immune response. The UK Health Security Agency will use the data to inform the UK’s ongoing approach to COVID-19 and provide further insight into the effectiveness of the vaccines against different variants.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid said: “Our new national antibody testing will be quick and easy to take part in, and by doing so you’ll be helping strengthen our understanding of COVID-19 as we cautiously return to a more normal life.
“I’m proud to see all parts of the UK uniting around this new initiative and working together to arm ourselves with even more valuable insights into how COVID-19 vaccines are protecting people up and down the UK.
“Our phenomenal vaccination programme continues to build a massive wall of defence across the country – already preventing around 24 million infections and more than 100,000 deaths in England alone. I urge everyone across the UK to get both vaccinations as soon as possible.”
How it works
Anyone taking part in the programme must take their first antibody test as soon as possible after receiving a positive PCR result, before the body has had time to generate a detectable antibody response to the current infection. The first test will determine the level of antibodies a person has had before their current infection.
The second test should be taken 28 days after testing positive for COVID-19 and will measure antibodies generated in response to the infection. By comparing the two antibody test results, the UK Health Security Agency will be able to see the how vaccines boost immunity once people are infected, and how this might vary with different variants.
The experts stress that testing positive for antibodies does not mean that people are immune from COVID-19, warning that people must still continue to practice infection control measures, get tested if they have symptoms, and self-isolate if they test positive or are a contact of a positive case and have not received both vaccine doses.
What do antibodies do?
Antibodies are part of the body’s immune response to help fight off infection and are generated either after being infected or following vaccination. Antibody testing looks for evidence of this immune response, whereas PCR and antigen testing detects the infection itself. Antibody testing will contribute to our understanding of the protection provided by vaccines.
Understanding immune response to COVID-19
Chief Executive of the UK National Health Security Agency Dr Jenny Harries said: “We are rolling out antibody testing across the UK to gain vital data into the impact of our vaccination programme and on immune responses to different variants of COVID-19.
“This has been made possible thanks to the incredible British public who continue to come forward for testing when they develop symptoms and the millions of people who have had their jabs.
“The best way to protect yourself and those around you is by getting vaccinated. I encourage anyone who has not yet come forward to book their first and second jabs.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, Public Health England’s COVID-19 Strategic Response Director, said: “Our testing armoury is stronger than ever now we are rolling out antibody testing to thousands of people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside the vast testing capacity we have built including our NHS Test and Trace system.
“Antibody testing surveillance shows how health teams across the UK are dedicated to working together to find innovative ways to understand the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and target future treatments for COVID-19.”