A new divide is opening up between the “haves” and the “have nots” – this time over COVID-19 testing. While private schools and big businesses have introduced testing for their pupils and employees, allowing them to return to school and work, state schools and small businesses will be left to rely on the state. Campaigners warn that “testing inequality” could fuel greater financial inequality, The Guardian reported.
Financial giants, such as Credit Suisse, have introduced testing for their employees, while the Premier League restarted its season last week, thanks to rapid antigen testing of players and backroom staff. Ocado bought 100,000 testing kits for its staff when lockdown began and some private schools intend to use testing as part of their plan to get all children back into classrooms at the start of the next academic year.
Antibody testing can show whether or not a person has had COVID-19, whereas antigen testing, also known as PCR, shows whether the person is currently infectious.
Kelly Klifa, the co-founder of Testing For All, a non-profit organization that supports wide-scale testing, said, “The majority of the population is left out of these tests. You’ve got the footballers on one end with a multimillion-pound contract. And on the other hand, there are companies that tell their workers, ‘if you have symptoms, you can set yourself up with the NHS’. But realistically, the accessibility of these tests is very difficult.”
Although anyone with symptoms qualifies for an antigen test, antibody tests are harder to come by. The government has a contract to buy 10 million kits from Roche and is using them to test NHS workers to establish how widespread the disease is.
Superdrug began offering antibody tests for £69, a fingerprick test where the blood sample is sent to a lab for testing. But the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency asked pharmacies to stop selling the kits, citing “patient safety issues” (i.e. too cheap for the big pharma). Other types of antibody tests, where blood is taken by a nurse or doctor, are still available, costing up to £250.
Testing For All is focusing on helping smaller employers, and individuals, access tests at about £42 each. They are also working with more than 2,000 locum GPs in London who need access to regular testing, according to co-founder James Monico.
“The majority of people we’ve tested are doctors and healthcare workers and they believe they’ve had it,” Monico said, adding, “And in reality, they haven’t. We’re looking at a 5% positive rate. With widespread availability, many people who think they’ve had it would realize they hadn’t.”
Institute for Global Change has argued that mass testing is the best way to relieve the lockdown, in its report Changing the Game on Testing. One of the report’s authors, Ryan Wain, said mass testing would prevent a divide opening up.
“The government could be in position relatively quickly to have mass testing, whereby everyone has access to a rapid antibody test. The science is coalescing around the fact that you do have some level of immunity, and that would link into a sort of a health passport, that can tell you [at] any one time what your COVID-19 status is,” Wain added.
Yet public health experts are skeptical that mass testing would help.
“Testing is absolutely chaotic and confused – the government doesn’t have a proper strategy for testing,” said Professor Allyson Pollock, a consultant in public health at Newcastle University.
“Antibody [testing doesn’t] tell you anything useful. It doesn’t change the management of the disease and it can end up giving false reassurance and false information. The government should certainly not be allowing the sale of antibody tests. You can understand employers might want to do PCR testing and they should be doing that through occupational health departments,” Pollock said.