A new type of Covid-19 test which can produce results in just 15-30 minutes is set to be rolled out across the globe according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
According to medical experts, the antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests work by detecting proteins found on the surface of the virus. The tests, which look similar to pregnancy tests and can yield results within 30 minutes, simply display two blue lines for a positive result.
The main difference between rapid-antigen tests and nasal/throat swabs and finger-prick blood tests is the antigen tests do not require laboratory processing to produce results.
This means they are able to detect coronavirus infection within minutes, compared to the hours or days necessary for the genetic tests, known as PCR tests, to turnaround results.
They are also far cheaper, with each test costing approximately £3.90 each. However, studies so far show they are may be less accurate than laboratory-based tests although the WHO did approve the tests for emergency use last week.
Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, a partnership that works to end epidemics, said the tests represent a “significant step” in the effort to combat and contain the virus on a global scale.
He said: “They’re not a silver bullet, but hugely valuable as a complement to PCR tests.”
The WHO and its leading partners have agreed to deploy 120 million of the rapid-diagnostic tests as early as next month.
Catharina Boehme, chief executive of a non-profit group called the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, said the initial rollout would take place across 20 countries in Africa.
While poorer countries will primarily benefit from the rapid-antigen tests, wealthier countries who have signed up to the Access to Covid tools initiative, which the UK has, will also be given access to them.
They represent a potential boon to the Government’s Operation Moonshot scheme for mass testing, though it is not clear if they intend to buy these tests.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock previously said mass testing was the nation’s “best chance” of reducing social distancing measures without having a vaccine.
Former prime minister Tony Blair has called on the Government to adopt the rapid antigen tests, saying they could enable an extra 300,000 coronavirus tests to be carried out every day within a few weeks.
However Baroness Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, warned companies and individuals could be forced to foot the bill for the swift turnaround tests as they were too unreliable for use within the health service.
But she said those without symptoms might choose to pay for the tests to act as a kind of Covid-19 passport to allow them to take part in non-socially distanced activities.