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Scotland's testing of Covid-19 coronavirus antibodies to be led by NHS Highland and Inverness laboratory

By Scott Maclennan

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Health secretary Jeane Freeman during a visit to Inverness earlier this year.
Health secretary Jeane Freeman during a visit to Inverness earlier this year.

NHS Highland and a lab in Inverness are to lead the way in Scotland for antibody testing for Covid-19, health secretary Jeane Freeman has just confirmed.

The tests will measure the population who have had the virus with little-to-no symptoms with a view to developing a full antibody test for wider use at a later date.

So far no such test has been validated as demonstrating sufficient reliability, frequently throwing up false positives for those who have taken it.

The move places the Highlands firmly at the forefront of what Ms Freeman said was “another significant step forward in our understanding” of the virus.

It will allow the government to monitor the proportion of people exposed to Covid-19 and help tackle its spread across populations by indicating whether a person has had the virus or not.

Once those tests are gathered they will be sent to Inverness for analysis to determine how many antibodies there are in the blood before being verified and used to inform how far the virus has spread in the population.

To begin with there will only be six health boards taking part by collecting and sending blood samples, they are – Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Tayside, Highland and Grampian.

Ms Freeman said: “The test indicates if a person has had the infection or not by looking at the antibody people produce in response to the virus. The test uses blood samples drawn at random from a range of everyday blood testing processes. These are then passed to our NHS lab in Inverness and the threshold of antibodies in the blood sample is detected with the results recorded.

“These results are then verified and analysed against wider population information to produce population estimates of Covid-19 prevalence. Health Protection Scotland has already been gathering blood samples in anticipation of a fully validated antibody test becoming available and this is now being operationalised.

“Approximately 500 residual samples from biochemistry labs submitted from primary care will be tested per week at the Scottish microbiology reference lab laboratory in Inverness.

“To achieve a fair representation of the Scottish population the initial samples will be distributed across six participating health boards both by age group and sex, the participating health boards are Lothian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire, Tayside, Highland and Grampian.

“An extra 270 samples will also be collected from smaller boards with further expansion into other boards being planned. The samples are then grossed-up to derive the full population estimates.

“Health Protection Scotland (HPS) is using only the tests which are currently validated for use but they will of course look at other tests. To ensure compatibility with UK data, we will be using a similar methodology to that of Public Health England, HPS is anticipating that this testing will stay on May 6, which is next Wednesday, and will run for at least 16 weeks.

“What this then gives us is information from that testing over that 16 starting from the middle of May and going forward the work will provide statistically robust estimates of the share of the population that has antibodies, including those who have not reported symptoms or had only experience of mild symptoms.

“It is important to stress that this is at a population level, we have some way to go before we have an antibody test in place which can be used on a widespread basis for the clinical testing of individuals.

“But this testing approach is suitable for surveillance purposes and has been fully verified – it adds to the information already being collected in hospitals about more severe illnesses and through community testing with those with mild to moderate symptoms.”

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