Private labs claim PHE is refusing to share blood samples needed to validate Covid-19 antibody tests 

Public Health England is hampering the development of accurate antibody tests by refusing to share vital blood samples from Covid-19 patients, private laboratories have claimed.

The tests, which have been heralded as a potential “game changer” by the Prime Minister, are used to confirm whether an individual has previously had a coronavirus infection and may now be immune.

But private laboratories have claimed that Public Health England (PHE) has not responded to multiple requests asking for blood samples from Covid-19 patients, despite interventions from the former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

According to leaked correspondence shown to The Telegraph, John Bell, a professor from Oxford University who is advising the Government about antibody tests, is among those who has not received assistance from official sources.

“We could not get them from PHE either,” he wrote in an email on Monday. “We are collecting ours one convalescent patient at a time. Now have 15, soon will have more than thirty. No generous samples however.”

These blood samples are required to validate the antibody assays. If the tests are reliable, they could be used to screen thousands of people in the UK, including health care workers.

“It’s very peculiar, a real mess,” said Professor Karol Sikora, chief medical officer of Rutherford Health, one of Britain’s largest private cancer care providers, and former director at the World Health Organization. “We’ll never get through the number of [tests] you need to get through without using this army of small laboratories… as well as the labs at PHE and Porton Down,” he added.

Rutherford Health has purchased 1,000 antibody tests for $10 (£7) per unit from South Korea, which has been widely praised for its approach to testing during the pandemic, in order to test staff working with vulnerable cancer patients.

Of roughly 400 staff members, 10 per cent are currently isolating because they or their family members have coronavirus symptoms.

“Testing everyone really is key to understanding who is free to go back to work normally,” said Prof Sikora, who suspects he contracted the virus last month but has not yet been able to confirm whether his symptoms were Covid-19.

To validate the quality of the South Korean antibody tests, which are due to arrive on Thursday, the cancer centre is working with Medical Diagnosis, an independent laboratory in North London. The team at the lab said they have another 50,000 antibody tests ready to roll out.

George Xynopoulos, chief executive of Medical Diagnosis, said they need just 50 samples from positive coronavirus patients and 50 from negative those who tested negative to confirm whether these antibody assays are accurate.

However, the lab claims that Ministers and officials at PHE and the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) have repeatedly ignored phone calls and letters asking for these 100 blood samples.  

The most recent letter – signed by Prof Sikora, Dr Xynopoulos and four other senior public health experts – was sent to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell, who is overseeing coronavirus testing in the UK, on Saturday evening.

“We are dedicated clinicians & scientists, who support the current UK Government initiatives for Antibody testing and have an urgent request to make to enable us to contribute to this initiative,” the letter read.

It added: “The laboratory is ready to make a contribution to your ‘5 point plan’, which has stated that a much greater testing capacity is required.”

The five part strategy to “ramp up” testing was announced by Mr Hancock last week.

Prof Sikora said it was frustrating that he had still heard “nothing” back: “We’re getting the runaround. We just need to get routine samples, 50 positive and 50 negative, it’s a tiny amount.”

Antibody tests have been pitted as essential as they allow experts to identify what proportion of the population have been infected and whether we are anywhere near “herd immunity”.

But PHE said that they only have a “very small number” of positive blood samples containing  coronavirus antibodies, so had not been able to share them with private companies.

“The Government wants as many labs as possible to support the scaling up of the UK’s testing capacity and any commercial companies that can help should contact the DHSC,” said Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director at PHE.  

“PHE has only a very small number of positive blood samples. It takes time for an immune response to develop; for most people infected in the UK, this will have been in the past six weeks and so their blood is only now reaching maturity to be used in this capacity.

“A blood bank will be developed that companies can use to validate their technology,” she added.

However others have also expressed frustration at PHE’s in-house approach. Last week The Telegraph disclosed that offers to provide dozens of specialised machines and expert staff from many of the country’s leading scientific institutions have repeatedly been ignored by health officials.

Wesley Baker, chief executive of ANCON Medical, which has created a device to diagnose coronavirus patients, also said he was disappointed by a lack of collaboration.

“We are over a month now since we began reaching out to Government officials to offer our technology to help the NHS test and screen people for coronavirus more quickly,” he said. “We are incredibly disappointed and frustrated with the lack of any response or acknowledgement from the DHSC or PHE thus far.”

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