Thousands seek antibody blood tests in France

The French public is rushing to have blood tests to check for Covid-19 antibody immunity, with thousands done already, less than a week into deconfinement - despite uncertainties about the tests’ reliability.

14 May 2020
Blood tests to check for Covid-19 antibodies are already proving popular in France despite uncertainties over their use
By Connexion journalist

Blood tests to check for Covid-19 antibodies have been available for some time at local laboratories across France - including at Biogroup-run labs (700 labs) and Synlab (400 labs) for a month, and at Cerballiance (580 labs) for a week.

Synlab and Cerballiance say they have been undertaking around 500 tests per day in France, depending on region (Occitanie, for example, has been doing almost no tests so far); while Biogroup said it is managing to do as many as 200 tests per hour nationwide.

In contrast, only a few of the Unilabs-branded labs are running the tests, while Inovie labs are not doing any.

Eventually, automated machines may allow up to 10,000 tests to be undertaken each per day, with results ready in 24 hours.

Most of the testing equipment and machines have been supplied by US group Abbott and Swiss lab Roche.

Read more: Millions of virus antibody blood tests set for France

Blood tests differ from Covid-19 tests (PCR; polymerase chain reaction) as they do not test to see if the person is currently infected with the virus. Instead, they test the blood for antibodies. A positive result means that the person has had the virus (even without knowing it), and may now have some level of immunity.

However, scientists have not yet agreed how much immunity may be conferred, or how long any such immunity might last.

Read more: New blood test by French lab detects Covid-19 immunity

The tests are not yet reimbursed by the State, and cost around €30 each - with or without prescription.

But François Blanchecotte, biologist and president of biologist union le Syndicat National des Biologistes, said that these factors had not deterred people from seeking a test already, with queues around the building from before 7h30, especially as confinement has lifted and people are now allowed to travel within 100km.

He said: “This morning, grandparents hoping to see their granddaughter wanted to know if they had antibodies.”

Étienne Couelle, director general of Synlab France, said: “There is a real appetite for this test among the population. People are looking for reassurance.”

But he explained that a positive antibody test does not mean that the person no longer needs to adhere to health recommendations or take precautions against Covid-19.

He also said that a small percentage of the tests may show a false result.

He added: “A third of people are coming in spontaneously, without a prescription. We do explain the limits of the tests, as they may wrongly believe that if they have antibodies, they are fine and are no longer at any risk. In a few cases, the result of the test may be false. And there is no guarantee that the antibodies are protective.”


Blood test uncertainty

The government had widely spoken of the importance of blood tests in the fight against Covid-19, especially after confinement was lifted.

Read more: France plans mass Covid-19 blood test post-confinement

Read more: France trials new Covid-19 blood test as labs mobilise

Yet, the subject of blood tests has disappeared from official discourse more recently.

A statement from the ministry of health to newspaper Le Figaro said: “So far, the role played by blood tests is limited, because there is too much uncertainty over their reliability. Their use is therefore neither recommended nor advised for individual testing.

“Yet, these tests are not forbidden, as they have authorisation to be on the market, with the CE mark [the European Economic Area (EEA) health and safety mark].”

The national medical quality centre le Centre national de Référence (CNR) had been due to publish a list of authorised tests at the beginning of May, but this has not yet been done. According to Le Figaro, the CNR has nonetheless given the go-ahead to 14 tests (authorisation for safe use on the public), out of the 40 considered.

Professor Blanchecotte condemned the current testing situation in France as “anarchy”.

He said: “We are in the worst of situations...a government that does not speak out, and only people who can afford to pay for tests are getting them. This test does make sense in certain situations, and it should be reimbursed by the State.”

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