It comes as forecasters predict a warmer than average spring – raising hopes that the weather could help efforts to combat the illness. The detector for Covid-19 has been developed by the Mologic laboratory, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited last week. Researchers plan to have a prototype of the on-the-spot test ready in four weeks and available to the public and NHS within three months.
Early detection would be a major boost in the fight against the deadly pandemic, as patients can be identified, isolated and treated earlier.
Mr Johnson visited the company’s lab last week as he announced that the Department of International Development was awarding a £46million funding package to help British scientists who are working on finding a vaccine. The expert team at Bedford Technology Park – which developed the stick pregnancy test – is using the same technique that helped it to create a rapid test for Ebola.
That test was funded through the Wellcome Trust, the UK Department for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
It was completed and sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo only last week – and the team has now turned its attention to creating a similar kit for Covid-19.
It will consist of two separate tests on a plastic strip which they say will be as simple to use as a pregnancy testing stick.
The first will analyse saliva collected via a swab around the gums which will detect the unique molecular signature of a coronavirus protein – known as the “spike protein”.
The other will analyse the Covid-19 antibodies in a pinprick of blood which will be able to show presence of acute disease and also whether there has been a history of the coronavirus.
The team, which is also working on a vaccine, believes the approach could be adapted to detect other epidemics. Dr Joe Fitchett, medical director of Mologic, said: “We’re aiming to have the prototype test available within four weeks using the same technology that we used for the Ebola testing.
“We want to make it accessible and available widely in the UK and also low-income countries at cost, so for as little as £1 or £2 each.”
A key part of Government strategy is to delay the peak of a coronavirus outbreak until later in the year, as warmer weather means hospitals are less busy.
A tropical 23C (73F) is predicted for next month, with the spring season from March to May expected to be warmer than average.
Because winter flu and vomiting bugs ease more quickly in the heat, this should free up NHS bed space for coronavirus sufferers.
Warmer weather may also slow the coronavirus transmission rate.
Because it is a new disease, it is not known how it will react to the weather. However, previous research on similar forms of virus show that they survive 4-5 times longer at 4C compared with 20C.
Warm air and UV light are known to reduce the level of viruses in the atmosphere. If Covid-19 acts in the same way, higher temperatures will help slow the spread.
Dr William Bird, who set up the Met Office’s health forecasting unit and has served as an adviser to the World Health Organization on public health, believes the next two months are critical.
He said: “Coronavirus is the real deal and if it peaks soon it will take a huge number of people out of work.
“However, while we cannot accurately predict the long-term forecast, warmer weather will reduce the survival of the virus – so the longer we can hold out the weaker its transmission rate will be.”
Death rates are around 15 percent lower in summer than winter, when 200,000 hospital admissions are linked to cold weather, according to figures from the NHS and Office for National Statistics.