A new swab and DNA test with the ability to distinguish between COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses is set to roll out in care homes and hospitals from next week.
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One of the major limitations of the current COVID-19 test is that the results can take between 24 hours to two days to be returned, by which time the virus could already have taken a major toll on the patient’s health, or been spread to others around them.
Identifying positive cases will also become increasingly important as the winter flu season rolls around, increasing the number of seasonal illnesses that could falsely be flagged as COVID-19. Several cities are seeing a spike COVID-19 cases after the easing of lockdown restrictions, owing to an increased number of meetings and public gatherings.
The new swab test returns the results in just under 90 minutes, helping to diagnose positive cases of the deadly virus faster, and potentially breaking the chain of transmission sooner, effectively preventing its spread. About half a million of these tests will be available in hospitals and care homes as early as next week.
In addition to this, the Department of Health announced NHS hospitals will receive around 5,000 DNA test machines that can analyse nose swabs, providing capacity for 5.8 million tests in the upcoming months. These machines have already been trialled in eight eminent London hospitals.
These new innovations will equip doctors to test patients faster, effectively helping them differentiate between symptoms of flu and COVID-19, so they can advise patients the correct ways to protect themselves and others around them.
The announcement of the new tests follows the recent push back on a July target promised by the UK government, to roll out regular testing for care home staff and medical professionals. A limited number of testing kits has been stated as the main reason why this target is no longer achievable, with some officials anticipating that it would be not until early September that such a system could be put in place.
While there is currently no publicly available data on the effectiveness of these new tests, they have been welcomed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock who called them “life-saving innovations.”
Experts remain more cautious, stating that there is not enough information about the tests to know whether they will be useful for the NHS. While Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford has advised they provide the same level of accuracy as current tests, others have criticised the government for racing ahead to purchase tests without adequate information about their performance.
The UK government hopes these new 90-minute tests will prove effective to detect new COVID-19 cases, while helping to restore testing capacity. If the tests are successful, they may be rolled out to other settings, for example, to help students return to schools and other institutions, since using them does not require any specific medical expertise.