‘Rapid turnaround’ Covid tests could revolutionise pandemic life - but how do they work?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised a mass rollout of so-called “rapid turnaround” Covid tests, which can deliver results within 10 to 15 minutes.

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The cheap and “reliable” tests are to be made available at universities and across whole cities, with the army being deployed to distribute them wherever they are needed.

How do the tests work?

Three of the rapid antigen tests, called lateral flow tests, have passed an assessment by science park Porton Down with Oxford University, and the government has signed a deal for 20 million from the company Innova Tried and Tested.

The Innova tests are designed for people who already have Covid symptoms, and the devices - which look similar to a pregnancy test - are intended to be read by a healthcare professional. The tests analyse throat and nose swabs from people with suspected coronavirus, and it is hoped they will help pave the way out of the pandemic.

Mr Johnson said they will be used in a variety of situations, “from helping women to have their partners with them in labour wards when they’re giving birth, to testing whole towns and even whole cities.”

Lateral flow tests, which use either swab samples from the nose and mouth or saliva, are now being offered to students at Durham and De Montfort universities, as part of a pilot study.

The three types of Covid test include:

  • Lateral flow tests - intended to detect the presence or absence of coronavirus by applying a swab from the nose and throat to a special test kit, and provide results without the need for a full scale laboratory.
  • LAMP - a new type of testing technology which stands for loop mediated isothermal amplification, and provides the ability to deliver significant volumes of tests.
  • PCR swab tests - tests that have been used as the default. These tests look for the genetic code (RNA) of the virus and involve taking a swab of the throat and nose. The test will confirm if an individual who is showing symptoms of the virus currently has it. It will not confirm whether they have had it and have now recovered.

Mass testing pilot

A mass testing pilot is to be rolled out in Liverpool this week, with everyone living or working in the city to be offered a Covid test, whether they have symptoms or not.

People will be tested using a combination of existing swab tests, as well as new lateral flow tests which can turn around results within an hour, without the need to be processed in a lab. LAMP technology will also be deployed in Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for NHS staff.

The pilot is intended to help form a blueprint for how mass testing can be achieved and how fast and reliable Covid tests can be delivered at scale.

People will be able to book a test online, walk-up, or attend by invitation from the local authority, with testing to be carried out in new and existing test sites, using home kits, in hospitals and care home settings, as well as schools, universities and workplaces.

These more advanced tests will help identify infectious individuals who are not displaying symptoms and help far more positive cases so they can self-isolate and prevent the virus from spreading, in a first step towards rolling out mass testing more widely across the UK.