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Millions of virus antibody blood tests set for France

Millions of blood tests that will check if people have antibodies against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 - which causes Covid-19 - will soon be available across France at local laboratory testing centres.

American company Abbott has confirmed that 4.5 million tests will be available in May, followed by six million from June onwards. The tests were first ordered by the French government at the end of March.

The tests will soon be available at town laboratories for people who have a GP prescription, but will not yet be reimbursed by la Sécurité Sociale, said French health authority la Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS).

No shortages are expected, the company said, as “the chain of procurement has been secured”, with the active part of the tests being produced in Europe.

Blood tests are separate to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are used to see if someone has the virus at the time of testing. Instead, these tests look for a certain type of antibody in the blood - immunoglobulins G (IgG) - which is produced more than one week after someone begins to show symptoms of Covid-19.

The tests have not “officially” been approved by authorities, but everything is ready to allow them to be rolled out on a wide scale the company said, and approval is expected imminently.

Test samples have been given to infectious respiratory virus centre le Centre National de Référence des Virus des Infections Respiratoires (CNR), which will now check the test, and ensure that it abides by the requirements of the health authority la Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS).

A spokesperson for Abbott Diagnostics said: “On paper, [our test] performance is higher than requirements.

“It has a specificity of more than 98% (showing that it is only testing for SARS-CoV-2); and a sensitivity higher than 90% (how reliable the test is). The test is accurate above 99% fourteen days and beyond after the beginning of symptoms.

“The logistics were an important part of being able to make tests available. We are starting distribution in such a way that laboratories throughout France will be ready to respond, without delay, to direction from the health authorities.”

Nathalie Guevel, general director of the Abbott Diagnostics division in France, said in a press release: “We are proud to be able to immediately distribute our blood tests to the French market, to help contribute to the identification of the population that has been infected by the virus.

“This information is key in allowing us to go back to a normal situation.”

Dr. Michael Sala, medical director at French biology lab Cerballiance, said: “This Abbott blood test is suitable for all large networks of medical analysis laboratories, which have the necessary machines to use these chemicals. Until now, we had mainly Chinese tests, which needed rigorous evaluation, and required us to buy specific and costly equipment.”

There are currently more than 500 machines that can read the results in France, and each can perform 100-200 tests per hour.

Dr. Sala added: “This test will allow us to see if the patient has been in contact with the illness. But it will not be possible to tell if they are still contagious, or if they are still spreading the virus through the nose. Because SARS-CoV-2 has a very different blood profile than other more usual viruses.”


More tests to come

The imminent rollout comes two weeks ahead of plans by Swiss group Laboratories Roche to bring its own test to the French market.

However this may only happen after May 11, the deconfinement start date. The Roche test is expected to aggregate several families of antibodies, including IgM, IgG, and IgA. The latter of these are produced by the body’s respiratory system, and digestive system, at different stages following the arrival of symptoms.

Tests from other groups are also expected to be available in France shortly, including Californian lab Bio-Rad, and the Chinese tests Yhlo and Snibe, which are set to be distributed by medical diagnostics group Eurobio Scientific.

French health minister Olivier Véran has repeatedly said that blood testing will form a key part of the government’s plans to ensure safe deconfinement.

He has given authorisation to many local scientific laboratories - such as those in town centres - to test for Covid-19, and on April 3 said: “I hear and salute all those who have volunteered to take part in the national testing effort.”

Similarly, president of the national union of biologists, François Blanchecotte, said that widespread testing of the population was “almost the only” method that would allow France to come out of confinement safely.

He said: “We must prepare the French, so that they know if they have contracted the virus or not, whether or not they had symptoms.”

Authorising tests at thousands of national labs in France “will allow us to test the French public on a wide scale”, he said.

The new tests come as a French virologist, Dr. Pierre Charneau, announced last week that his lab, biotech laboratory Pasteur-TheraVectys - which is based in central Paris and is a “spin off” of prestigious medical research centre l’Institut Pasteur - was developing a blood test that could not only tell if someone has virus antibodies in their blood, but also determine exactly how immune they are to the virus.

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