Tag: virus

Rapid Testing and COVID-19: Why Are We Being So Sensitive?

As all of us absorb some of the more troubling aspects of the recent government announcements, we might not be able to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Just like at the end of March, the government is making decisions very quickly that will have a sizable effect the British public. Even more so, the government is pursuing the same line of response that they pursued back in March, leading some to question how far we have really come in our understanding of how to deal with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last few weeks, however, there have been a number of breakthroughs in the scientific community. These revelations concern the sensitivity of rapid testing, a topic that has been hotly debated in the months since lockdown began. For many, the fact that rapid tests were unable to detect antibodies and viral material below a certain threshold was a fatal flaw, further confirming the predominant use of PCR testing which can detect below this threshold.  

The problem lies in the fact that PCR tests – like those available on the NHS – take at least 48 hours to return a result. Given that the government advises those with symptoms to stay at home, this might mean that the patient misses two days of work at the least, which, as infections rise again, could threaten the financial stability of those already hit hard by the pandemic. Similarly, those interested in travelling might have to postpone or even cancel their plans if they experience symptoms at an inopportune time. Clearly, there is an incentive here for Britons to simply take their chances, to keep functioning in ignorance by not applying for a test or to apply for a test but make no adjustments to their behaviour while they wait for the results. In both cases, the delay inherent in PCR testing poses a problem for mitigating infection rates.

But, since rapid tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests, we have no other option but to continue with this line of response, right?

Well, Harvard immunologist Dr. Michael Mina has a strange yet simple answer (which he lays out clearly and concisely in a recent New York Times article): what if rapid tests are just insensitive enough to miss non-contagious or non-immune individuals who nevertheless have some tiny amount of viral material or antibodies? Put another way, what if a positive result from a rapid test gives us all the information that actually we care about: are we infectious/immune or not? 

Dr. Mina would answer in the affirmative. He does not dispute that rapid tests are less sensitive but still holds that they are more useful that PCR tests, since we are not interested in detecting any and all amounts of viral material or antibodies but only those amounts which make a patient contagious or presently immune. So, why are we being so sensitive?  Rapid testing offers the British public the power to make informed decisions at the pace of their lives. PCR testing interrupts their lives to give them information that they don’t need.

If you are interested in purchasing a rapid test, take a look at our online shop and our eBay page.

Behind the Mask: An SME’s Guide to Mandatory Masks

The next phase of the government’s response to the pandemic begins on Friday as face coverings become mandatory in various public spaces. It is unclear why exactly the government has chosen to do this. Although the pandemic rages on, we are still seeing sustained decreases in infection rates. A number of explanations have been given, most of which revolve around increasing the confidence of shoppers. Understandably, the government is desperate to give the British economy a jump-start and hope that these measures will encourage demand.

However, if this is the case, it doesn’t seem to explain why the government is punishing non-compliance, rather than simply advising compliance. It is worth re-emphasising then that COVID-19 remains a real danger to public health, as the recent outbreak in Leicester demonstrated. So, if they are effective, wearing a mask would definitely be in the public’s best interest. 

One of the other problems with this new legislation is that it promises to create a whole bunch of complications for small businesses. Our plan with this blog is to untangle some of these, to give small businesses the confidence to weather this phase of the crisis. 

What Are You Legally Required to Do?

From July 24, face coverings will be mandatory in shops, supermarkets and on public transport. It is worth emphasising that pubs, cafés and restaurants are not subject to these rules, according to a government spokesperson contacted by the BBC.

Now, the brunt of the legislation falls on the public, rather than transport operators or business owners. For example, the system of fines attached to these measures only apply to the public. The fine for not wearing a face covering in these public spaces is £100, although this halves to £50 if the perpetrator pays within 14 days. This does not mean that there can be no repercussion for business owners, however – the government has stated that they ‘will be expected to encourage compliance with the law’. It is only that there are no prescribed punishments in the legislation for non-public actors.   

The government does explain how business owners can legally respond to those breaking these new laws. Most notably, businesses can ‘refuse entry’. Since the legislation gives the police the power to fine members of the public, businesses therefore have recourse to requesting their aid in dealing with non-compliant customers.

Unforeseen Consequences

Many readers will have already observed that these new measures pose a number of challenges for small businesses. The pandemic has already been disastrous for many small businesses, especially those which require proximity to customers. For such businesses, this legislation reads as yet another major threat to their livelihoods.

For many small businesses, relationships of trust are crucial. Whether it is the trust and loyalty of frequent patrons or the necessity of making that initial impression as a trust-worthy establishment, small businesses rely heavily on the interactions with customers that might be hamstrung by this legislation. For example, consider the situation of a trusted customer entering your shop without a mask – do you risk offense and ill-will by asking them to leave? Similarly, how much new business are you willing to turn away in compliance with this legislation?

In discussing the role of transport operators to their customers, the government states that they can ‘direct some to wear a face covering’. There is no requirement for transport operators or business owners to have face coverings on hand, however, and no mention of such a practice in general. However, having a number of masks available at your workplace, staff can give them to customers entering without a mask, preventing a loss of business.

The Perfect Mask

So far, we’ve skipped over one of the most important aspects of this development: are masks even effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19? 

There has been considerable debate within the scientific community on this topic. Yet, as it stands, there is no debate around whether masks are effective, only how effective they might be. 

The picture that virologists paint about masks looks something like this. COVID-19 is spread predominantly by droplets originating in the mouth, nose and throat, partly because of the distance these droplets can cover as a result of the air propelled when someone exhales or speaks. Similarly, the virus’ main entry-point into the body is the mouth, hence all the guidance about refraining from touching your face. Masks are designed as a barrier to these infectious droplets, regardless of whether they are coming from the wearer themselves or another person in close proximity to them. Therefore, masks prevent both the infected from spreading the virus and the non-infected from catching it. 

If you’d like a more comprehensive explanation, take a look at this video: 

As might be clear to you, the effectiveness of the mask depends upon the quality of the mask. Luckily, the most effective masks are fairly simple to make and as such, relatively inexpensive, made from pieces of cotton attached to string or elastic straps. Many have become interested in so-called “valved” masks which appear to be far more high-tech and therefore more secure than the regular cotton mask. 

However, there have been rising concerns about these masks, which are nevertheless still far less popular than their cheaper cotton counterparts. Of course, these concerns are more pressing in light of this new legislation, which will spur a drastic increase in the wearing of masks. 

Recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s decision to wear a one of these masks became a flashpoint for the debate over their effectiveness. A number of virologists penned concerned letters and articles, including Dr Bharat Pankhania of the University of Exeter Medical School, who highlighted the filtering valves on the mask, supposedly a further protection, as having the potential to exaggerate the possibility of spreading COVID-19 by creating a ‘high-velocity flow of air from the mouth … which could create a plume of infection.’ In India, where the masks are more common, the government has had to issue an official statement against their use.

So, the regular cotton mask remains the most effective which is hand since they are so much more affordable than the alternative. If you’re still in need of a mask for yourself or a number of masks for your workplace, head on over to our online shop or our eBay page to get your hands on some.

An Introduction to Viral Testing for Small Businesses

Source: Pixabay

As the pandemic has progressed, there has been growing public interest in the potentials of testing. With reliable means of detecting whether someone has or has had the virus, we might better adjust not only public policy but our own lives, which have been so abruptly interrupted. There has been endless discussion about the possibilities of immunity for those who have contracted the virus and survived. There have also been doubts about the reliability of rapid testing, which remains the most convenient form of testing for the general public – and for business owners. 

Indeed, for many small businesses, the answers to these questions will be pivotal. However, answering these questions requires at least a minimal knowledge of viral testing and there has been a pitiful lack of accessible information. As part of our campaign to empower small businesses during the pandemic, we thought it might be useful to produce this short and simple introduction to viral testing.

Let’s start with the absolute basics. A virus is parasitic, meaning it cannot survive without a host. Its host is a cell. A virus is chiefly composed of two elements: a nucleic acid molecule and a protein shell. ‘Nucleic acid’ might sound familiar to you, a distant memory from a school classroom where you were given a lecture on DNA – the ‘secret ingredient of life’. It is this element of a virus that is responsible for the replication which can make them so dangerous. 

In order for a virus to replicate, though, it must attach itself to a cell – its host. This is where the protein shell comes in. Think about all of those images of the COVID-19 virus that you will have seen on the news or in articles or on the government’s public safety posters that are now dotted all over the place. The virus has a bunch of ‘spikes’ sticking out of it, right? Well, these are part of the protein shell and they’re the virus’ way of gaining access to a cell. 

They are also what attracts the attention of the body’s immune system. When the body produces antibodies against a virus, it is these protein ‘spikes’ which they are designed to hunt out. This brings us to the first of the two major forms of COVID-19 tests: the antibody test. In an antibody test – like our rapid antibody test -, the filter paper onto which the blood-sample is placed already contains proteins extracted from the COVID-19 virus. If you have the relevant antibodies in your blood, they will react with the proteins on the paper, producing the marks that can be seen on this test from one of our customers:   

Antibody tests have come under fire in the past few months for a number of reasons. (We have a whole blog on the topic, if you’re interested.) But the main concerns revolved around the sensitivity of the tests. Firstly, it takes a while for detectable levels of antibodies to be produced, meaning that antibody tests do not give us a totally comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus. Similarly, in the other direction, it is hard to pinpoint exactly when the levels of antibodies cease to be detectable and whether this has any bearing on immunity, for example. Take a look at this diagram:

Source: iSTOC

However, the picture used above is of a test taken by one of our customers, whose husband had symptoms over 60 days ago, which means that antibody testing might be reliable far beyond the limit previously assumed.

So, what is different about an antigen test? Instead of testing for antibodies which fight the virus, antigen tests are able to detect the genetic material of the virus, that nucleic acid we discussed earlier. Because this genetic material is present as soon as someone is infected, antigen tests offer a more comprehensive picture of who currently has the virus than do antibody tests. However, antigen tests cannot give us information on who has had the virus in the past, which is the added benefit of antibody tests. Such a hard limit to the testing window is reflected in the NHS’ guidance on getting one of their antigen tests:

Source: NHS

We hope that this information clears up a few misconceptions about testing and gives you the confidence to lead your business through the current challenges. For more information, and to view our range of health and safety products, check out our website

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