The rise of lateral flow tests: are these ‘heroes’ of the pandemic here to stay? | Coronavirus

As soon as obscure diagnostic gadgets, lateral flow checks have had a rocky path to mainstream use, however some consultants now view their rise to ubiquity as a “heroic” step in the combat towards Covid-19 and say they might be here to keep.

As the first wave of Covid crashed down in early 2020 and governments scrambled to safe PPE, ventilators and reagents for laboratory testing, behind the scenes some had already foreseen a job for the being pregnant test-style kits.

“We began fascinated about it in late 2019 after we have been at worldwide commerce reveals the place it was changing into a sizzling matter,” stated David Campbell, the director of the Derby-based diagnostics firm Surescreen, which has been in the lateral flow enterprise for greater than 25 years and introduced one of the first antigen checks in Europe to market. “We’d performed quite a bit of work on influenza and a few work on Mers. We thought initially that it might be a distinct segment product.”

The first Covid lateral flow checks have been designed to detect antibodies. At the time governments optimistically – and wrongly – hoped that proof of prior an infection might act as a “freedom cross” permitting individuals to return to life as regular in the information that they have been immune to the virus.


By April 2020 the UK authorities had introduced the buy of 17.5m lateral flow testing kits, describing them as a “gamechanger”. However this proved to be a misstep. “They completely didn’t work – they have been terrible,” stated Prof Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medication at Oxford College. (He famous that Surescreen’s take a look at was not amongst these.) “There have been quite a bit of individuals operating round attempting to promote checks that didn’t work attempting to make a quick buck. It was fairly scandalous. That was the place to begin for lateral flow checks.”

The orders have been quietly cancelled, and Bell stated one beneficial lesson was the want for a sturdy validation course of. The authorities established a bunch of Porton Down scientists, chaired by Bell, to validate checks to be used.

By early autumn 2020 many corporations had switched their focus to antigen checks, which use artificial antibodies to detect proteins from the virus itself. The UK authorities had additionally moved on to Operation Moonshot, which aimed to ship tens of millions of these kits to individuals’s houses. “At any time when I hear the phrase ‘moonshot’ from No 10 my coronary heart sinks,” Bell stated. “However the actuality is that lateral flow checks have delivered. It’s been one of the extra heroic moments of the pandemic.”

An indication in the window of a Boots retailer in Windsor this week. {Photograph}: Maureen McLean/Rex/Shutterstock


This time the authorities fast-tracked a pilot of community testing of about 125,000 individuals in Liverpool utilizing Innova’s lateral flow antigen take a look at, and located that 897 individuals who didn’t know that they had the virus examined optimistic and have been stopped from spreading it additional. Nonetheless, the checks in the area missed 60% of infections in individuals who have been self-swabbing, and even in these with excessive viral masses 30% of circumstances have been missed.

The outcomes have been controversial, with a vocal group of scientists warning that reliance on LFTs to open up colleges and the economic system risked offering false reassurance.

“We have been being attacked left, proper and centre,” stated Prof Iain Buchan, the chair in public well being and scientific informatics at the College of Liverpool, who led the pilot. “It was virtually a spiritual argument about whether or not you have been for lateral flow testing or not. We even acquired demise threats.”

Buchan and others noticed issues otherwise. “Those that have been criticising it have been seeing it as a scientific diagnostic device, not a public well being device,” he stated. He and others argued that evaluating the checks with the “gold normal” of laboratory-based PCR checks, which detect viral RNA, missed the level. Lateral flow checks aimed to spot individuals who would by no means have come ahead for a PCR take a look at in the first place and supply outcomes at a fraction of the price, in minutes fairly than days.


In accordance to evaluation by Buchan and colleagues, hospitalisations in Liverpool throughout the second wave have been round a 3rd decrease than they’d have been with out the use of lateral flow checks. He stated this discount couldn’t have been purely the consequence of individuals who examined optimistic self-isolating, however that doing the checks prompts wider behaviour adjustments reminiscent of different family members behaving extra cautiously.

Proof additionally emerged that LFTs are most delicate throughout the interval when individuals have a excessive viral load, which has led some to argue they are a greater take a look at of when individuals are really infectious. Nonetheless, there isn’t a established threshold for “infectiousness” and the sensitivity to low ranges of antigens varies significantly between totally different manufacturers of take a look at.

“The supposed means of LFTs to detect individuals whereas they are ‘infectious’ appears to have turn into accepted dogma, however we all know from our newest assessment that though just about all LFTs are very dependable when utilized in individuals with the very highest viral masses, there may be appreciable variation in assay efficiency at decrease ranges,” stated Jac Dinnes, a senior researcher at the College of Birmingham who’s main a assessment of the accuracy of lateral flow checks.

Volunteers hand out boxes of lateral flow tests in north-east LondonVolunteers hand out packing containers of lateral flow checks in north-east London. {Photograph}: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Photographs

As case numbers fell in 2021, lateral flow checks additionally got here below criticism for delivering false positives. This displays a basic statistical conundrum: should you take a look at optimistic, the probabilities that you simply actually have Covid will depend on not solely the high quality of the take a look at but in addition the present prevalence of the virus. As an example, if an LFT delivers a false optimistic consequence for one in 1,000 checks at a time when only one in 1,000 individuals have Covid, the probabilities that somebody with a optimistic is actually contaminated are solely 50%. But when the prevalence is one in 10 individuals, because it was in London final week, that individual may be 99% positive they are contaminated.

The latter could also be the clearest clarification for why lateral flow checks have come into their very own at this specific juncture in the pandemic. Since the emergence of Omicron, case numbers in the UK have risen to such extraordinary ranges that the subject of individuals having to isolate unnecessarily due to false optimistic outcomes is negligible (and makes confirmatory PCR checks redundant). Vaccination has lessened the danger of extreme illness and weakened the case for full nationwide lockdowns. But we are nonetheless dealing with a pandemic that wants to be introduced below management. Consultants say the UK is in impact performing an enormous public well being trial on the extent to which mass testing can obtain this aim.

“The manner that these checks have gone from a device supposed to assist diagnose, or at the very least triage, individuals with signs of Covid-19 to one thing really helpful for each day use in individuals with out signs is de facto fairly the story,” stated Dinnes. “I’ve not seen any printed proof from main research, as opposed to modelling research, that absolutely helps this coverage.”

The jury is out on whether or not authorities recommendation to “flow earlier than you go” might be recalled as one other surreal episode of the pandemic, like Zoom quizzes and clapping for the NHS on our doorsteps, or whether or not it’s going to turn into half of the material of each day life. Some say that as case charges come down, mass testing might be much less beneficial as a public well being device. Others imagine that the pandemic will pave the manner for LFTs for a wider vary of respiratory viruses. In the future, they are saying, dad and mom may do a fast take a look at on their little one earlier than sending them to college once they get up with a slight cough, or an aged individual may take a look at for flu and take antiviral tablets earlier than the signs actually kick in.

“There’s a world the place these might be fairly transformational … through which you might change the influence of respiratory viruses in society usually,” stated Bell.

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