Omicron puts spotlight on UK’s use of rapid tests to stem Covid spread

The Omicron variant of coronavirus shocked many Britons in current weeks by turning up at events undetected by rapid Covid-19 tests, prompting questions on whether or not the gadgets present true confidence for individuals to reside with out worry of an infection.

The UK Health Security Agency has mentioned preliminary investigations present the rapid tests work simply as nicely in opposition to Omicron as in opposition to Delta, the beforehand dominant pressure. Experts consider the UK tests are probably to proceed to work as a result of they detect a special protein from the much-mutated spike — and the variant’s doubtlessly far larger viral load means they may even be more practical.

But rapid lateral circulation tests have at all times been imperfect, detecting a median of 72 per cent of symptomatic instances, and 58 per cent of asymptomatic ones, in accordance to a meta-analysis of research by the medical database the Cochrane Library.

Tim Peto, a professor of medication at Oxford, who has labored on validating tests’ accuracy, mentioned the scientific group had “very poor methods” of telling if individuals have been infectious. “The LFTs are the best of a bad lot,” he mentioned.


We’ve spent billions of kilos with no good proof for the effectiveness of lateral circulation tests

The authorities is sustaining religion in its pioneering rapid testing programme to management the spread of an infection whereas it resists extra drastic measures. It has launched, for England, destructive tests as an choice to vaccination certificates to entry massive occasions and nightclubs, and requested the vaccinated to check each day for per week after they arrive into contact with Covid-19, relatively than isolating.

“We have always been clear that rapid testing is a vital tool in curbing the spread of Covid-19 because it helps to rapidly uncover hidden cases of the virus in people without symptoms,” the UKHSA mentioned.

Their use has been intensely debated. Supporters level to analysis that exhibits they’re more practical at figuring out individuals at their most infectious, whereas detractors fear they provide a false sense of safety.


Lateral circulation tests return outcomes quicker than PCRs and are far cheaper — however much less correct. The rapid tests comprise a strip of antibodies that turns pink if it reacts with the plentiful protein that makes up the virus’ shell. PCR tests detect the presence of virus earlier and in smaller portions as a result of they amplify the pattern and pick genetic signatures. In the UK, individuals are suggested to have a PCR check to affirm a optimistic consequence.

The sheer quantity of instances of Covid-19 within the UK — up 44 per cent to 534,415 previously seven days implies that LFTs will choose up extra instances, however they may also miss extra individuals who might spread the illness.

Tom Lewis, a medical microbiologist at North Devon district hospital, mentioned the tests have been most helpful when you perceive how probably it’s that you’re contaminated — and the likelihood somebody is carrying the virus has modified “overnight”. 

If you assume 1 in 100 individuals is now contaminated, he mentioned, there shall be a median of 4 individuals in danger of spreading the virus at a 400-person occasion. Based on expertise, lateral circulation tests will choose up solely two.


“That doesn’t sound much, but two people are now moving around in that room with Covid and infectious . . . they have about a 50 per cent chance of transmitting, probably higher now with the Omicron variant. It’s definitely a transmission event,” he mentioned.

But he mentioned the tests make individuals really feel protected. “The lateral flows are a massive confidence trick,” he added.

The tests are most helpful if taken simply earlier than attending an occasion or visiting a susceptible particular person. Catherine Moore, a advisor medical scientist at Public Health Wales, mentioned she had seen individuals submit on social media that they have been shocked when a check taken within the morning was destructive and one within the afternoon was optimistic.

“That’s just showing you that the viral load increases over the day, which you would expect to see,” she mentioned.

Viral masses enhance in bursts, typically about 48 to 72 hours later than the preliminary an infection, she mentioned. “The big downside of lateral flow devices is probably their sensitivity in the early parts of the infection when you may not have lots of virus on board straightaway. It could be six to eight hours later there’s another surge in virus that makes the test positive,” she mentioned.

Repeating tests could make the outcomes extra strong, so many specialists endorse the federal government suggestion for vaccinated individuals uncovered to the virus to check for seven days straight.

Chart showing that in the early days after exposure to the virus, a negative lateral flow result is by no means a guarantee that you are virus-free. Negative results are expected in the first couple of days after exposure, but a positive could be just hours away. Just before the infectious, period, the lower sensitivity of lateral flow tests means they could miss an infection that a PCR would pick up. It’s possible to test positive by PCR several days after lateral flows would no longer detect the virus

On a inhabitants degree, a brand new Liverpool college research exhibits that utilizing the tests to immediate individuals to isolate reduces the burden on the healthcare system. When the Liverpool City area rolled out asymptomatic testing earlier than it was accessible nationally, it diminished hospital admissions by 32 per cent in contrast with different areas. It additionally saved greater than 8,300 key employee days by permitting workers to check, relatively than isolate, after a contact.

Iain Buchan, the college’s chair of public well being, mentioned lateral circulation testing ought to now not be “divisive” when the proof is evident it’s a “very important public health tool” to steadiness dangers whereas avoiding lockdowns.

“We know the damage that has been done to local economies and social wellbeing,” he mentioned.

But the entire NHS Test and Trace programme has come at a monetary value that the House of Commons public accounts committee described as “eye-watering”, with a funds of £37bn for 2 years. A report printed by the committee in October mentioned solely 14 per cent of the rapid tests had been registered, making it onerous to know if individuals remoted after optimistic outcomes.

Allyson Pollock, medical professor of public well being at Newcastle University, mentioned it will have been far less expensive to do conventional contact tracing to break chains of transmission.

“We’ve spent billions of pounds with no good evidence for the effectiveness of lateral flow tests,” she mentioned. “If the purpose is to give confidence, it’s a very expensive way to give people confidence.” 

The utility of the tests within the present wave will rely on how ailing individuals grow to be. While early research urged Omicron causes milder signs in vaccinated or beforehand contaminated populations, more moderen analysis — similar to that undertaken at Imperial College London — has discovered that is unlikely to be brought on by the virus’s mutations inflicting it to be much less innately extreme.

If the results for most individuals are milder, then even the self-described “great test advocate” Peto worries we may very well be simply “locking people up and causing anxiety”.

“It’s not entirely clear that optimism is justified, it is a bit premature at the moment,” he mentioned. “In two weeks’ time it will be obvious if I’m right or wrong.” 

Additional reporting by Oliver Barnes

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