Coronavirus test: What is the difference between an antigen test and an antibody test?

As of March 30, there have been 22,141 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, and according to official figures 1,408 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died. But the true scale of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK is hard to estimate, as the UK is only testing infected patients who are admitted to hospital at the moment. The Government has pledged to increase the UK’s coronavirus testing capacity, with the aim of testing hundreds of thousands of people daily in the coming weeks.

What is an antigen test?

The immune system releases antigens to help fight off an infection.

Antigen tests can determine whether there are antigens present in a person’s blood.

The NHS is currently using antigen tests in hospitals to determine if someone is currently infected with coronavirus.


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What is an antibody test?

When a person has caught and then recovered from coronavirus, the body will create antibodies to fight off reinfection.

Those who test positive for coronavirus antibodies have already caught the illness, and are unlikely to catch coronavirus again as they will have immunity (although the timeframe this immunity lasts for is unknown).

There is global demand for antibody testing, as the tests will particularly benefit frontline health staff.

Healthcare workers who test positive for antibodies have a much lower risk of passing the virus on to patients and staff.

This means these staff can return to work from self-isolation, at a time when hospitals around the world are under increasing demand.

The UK has purchased 3.5 million antibody tests, but they will not be available to the public for a while.

The tests will need to be vetted for their accuracy before being rolled out to the wider community.


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Why is the UK looking to increase antibody testing?

In line with advice issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UK is looking to significantly increase coronavirus testing.

But the UK is also looking to introduce new testing – antibody testing – into its plans to tackle coronavirus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described antibody testing as a “game-changer” at a coronavirus daily briefing this month, due to the positive impact the tests would have on the NHS.

If frontline NHS staff had access to antibody testing, staff who test positive for antibodies would have a reduced risk of passing COVID-19 on to staff and patients.

The tests would mean staff could return to work from self-isolation, at a time when the NHS is under significant pressure.

Michael Gove, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said at a coronavirus daily briefing this week: “Increasing our testing capacity is absolutely crucial in our response to and our fight against coronavirus.

“This is a particular priority for those who work in the health and social care sector and are working so hard to keep us all safe.”

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