Could a new 12-minute Covid-19 test re-open the economy?
This week, major pharmacy chain Boots confirmed that it will soon be able to offer Covid-19 swab tests which deliver a result within 12 minutes. Could the news be the catalyst to re-open the economy?
After a relatively calm summer, the UK has seen a substantial increase in the number of coronavirus cases during September and October. In England, the spread of the virus has led to the introduction of a tiered system of social restrictions, with tier 3 lock downs seeing venues such as non-essential shops, pubs and bars closed, a prohibition on socialising with other households, and guidance to work from home where possible.
In Scotland, a 5-tiered system has been introduced, while Wales has opted for a 2 week ‘fire break’, with rules equivalent to the lock downs seen in March. Northern Ireland has also chosen an extended lock down, which has been described as a ‘circuit break’.
With many businesses needing to close once again, concerns have been raised about the impact of restrictions on the economy. Despite some government financial support being announced for businesses in lock down, particular companies are expected to remain vulnerable, including those in the hospitality, retail, and art and culture sectors.
However, the news of the 12-minute test from Boots, using technology developed by medical firm LumiraDx, opens up the possibility that rapid testing could help to keep parts of the economy open.
Rapid testing is a key component of the government’s “Operation Moonshot” project, which would permit large gatherings and allow businesses to remain open on the basis that regular testing with same day results would be able to quickly show who does and who doesn’t have Covid-19. This would allow those who test positive to immediately self-isolate, while businesses could remain open for those who test negative for the virus.
As well as the Boots announcement, the NHS has also been trialling tests which give a result in 90 minutes. But concerns remain about rapid testing. In September, the British Medical Journal described Operation Moonshot’s proposals as “scientifically unsound”.
Discussing the Lumira 12-minute test, Dr Alexander Edwards, Associate Professor in Biomedical Technology at the University of Reading, also warned that “The biggest concern about swab tests is false negatives, which are possible because you can be exposed to virus, become infected, but it can take several days before there is enough virus in your swab to be detected by any test.” A rapid test could therefore return a negative result one day, even though an individual could be infected and return a positive result just a few days later.
Seb James, Managing Director of Boots in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, explained that by introducing the test, the firm hope that they “can help ease pressure on the NHS and the Government by providing additional access to testing and crucial reassurances for people across the UK”. Although quicker testing could ease the burden on the NHS, and allow more people to get tested, the indications are that the new 12-minute test won’t change the current restrictions.
The new tests will be available from November, but it could be too late to re-open the economy in time for December. Businesses will continue to hope that progress on testing and a vaccine will help to ease the pressure from ongoing lock downs.