There’s been a lot of discussion around coronavirus testing in the media recently.

Gradually more and more tests for COVID-19 are being manufactured and becoming available, both in the public sector (NHS), but also now in the private sector; and tests for coronavirus are now being offered by outlets online (including by Treated.com).

But there have also been reports of false or fake home test kits being sold online, and alarmingly in some pharmacies. Due to the nature of the virus and its status as a public health emergency, the provision of fake or illegitimate test kits has been taken very seriously by the National Crime Agency, with a number of arrests being made. 

We’ll take a look at which coronavirus tests are safe to buy online, and which tests are legally available at the current time.

Why are fake tests so dangerous?

Fake tests present a significant health risk to both the person taking the test, and to the general public.

For example, if someone using a fake test gets a false positive result (telling them they have coronavirus when they don’t), this could potentially lead them to think they have the virus presently, and that they are much less likely to get infected again after observing a period of isolation (when in fact they can, because the result was incorrect).

So a person with a false positive result might be less likely to observe social distancing later on, on the presumption that they’re immune (when they aren’t), and subsequently put themselves at increased risk of actually getting coronavirus and becoming severely ill.

Similarly, someone using a fake test from an unreliable source may get a false negative result (the test tells them they don't have coronavirus when, in fact, they do). They may be falsely reassured that their cough is just a common cold and may not take action to seek medical advice if their condition deteriorates which they would otherwise have done if they had known they had COVID-19.

It should also be noted that, although a good level of immunity is presumed among those who have had the infection before, we don’t know enough about the virus to guarantee this yet.

The much more obvious risk of a test that isn’t reliable though, is that someone who does have coronavirus uses a fake test and gets a false negative result (telling them they don’t have coronavirus when they actually do). This might mean that they mistake early coronavirus symptoms for a common cold or flu, and not take precautions to self-isolate for the required time, thereby putting others around them at risk of catching the infection.

What tests for coronavirus are safe to use and legal?

The situation is changing quickly as new tests are trialled but at the moment, there are only certain types of test that can be legally supplied, sold and used to screen for coronavirus.

At the moment, there are no reliable ‘home tests’ available for COVID-19 (as in tests where you can get a result in minutes at home, without sending a sample to a lab). Where people have been able to obtain them, these are often less than reliable haven’t yet been made legally available, so should be avoided.

Tests where swab samples are analysed by a laboratory are legal. These are the types of tests currently being used in NHS hospitals and care homes, and are available to buy privately. They only test for active or current infection with coronavirus, so they can’t tell you if you’ve been infected before and have recovered since.

One of the coronavirus tests Treated.com offers falls within this category, and screens for current infection. The ‘kit’ we provide comes with everything you need to collect your sample at home, and post this back to our approved partner pathology lab, based in the UK. The sample is then analysed, and results are ready within 2-3 days of receipt at the lab. 

You’ll then receive a text message (if you opt in to receive text messages) and an email to let you know your result is ready. You can view your result by logging into your account.

However, very recently the long anticipated coronavirus antibody test was approved for use and is now also available through our service for healthcare professionals to order. It requires a venous sample that needs to be collected in a clinical setting, so it isn’t available for the general public to order (and carry out themselves). Healthcare professionals will need to provide their registration number when ordering the test.

The sample is then screened for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If detected, this indicates that the person who the sample was collected from has had the virus at some point. However, we don’t know yet if people who have had the disease before are immune, so people should continue to follow the social distancing advice and self-isolate if they develop symptoms. 

What to look for when buying a coronavirus test online

To make sure you’re buying a legitimate test:

  • don’t trust sites that offer a urine test. Mouth/throat swab and blood sample testing are the only recognised methods currently in use.
  • don’t buy test kits that promise to give you a result at home. At the minute, there isn’t a test available that can do it. Swab and blood samples need to go to a lab to be analysed.
  • don’t order anything from a site that doesn’t have contact details for the business. You should be able to reach the seller by email or phone, and they should have registered premises.
  • don’t buy test kits from foreign countries outside the UK, EU or EEA. They may not be licensed for use where you live, or be subject to EU or UK safety standards.
  • look for a testing service that uses CE marked sample collection equipment.
  • if you’re buying from an online pharmacy, check to see that the site is registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA). 
  • an added layer of security is if the pharmacy site you’re buying from is CQC approved. This means that the care offered by the service is regularly monitored.

Why has Treated.com started offering the coronavirus test?

The Coronavirus crisis is obviously a fast-moving situation,’ Dr Daniel Atkinson commented. ‘Due to our relationship with our UK pathology partners, who we have worked with previously on areas such as STI testing and chronic condition monitoring, we were able to source tests for coronavirus at comparatively short notice. With a lot of tests in the UK right now not being able to get to the right places very quickly, we wanted to do our bit to facilitate this passage by making them available to buy online.’

‘There’s a significant need among healthcare professionals and key workers, and we hope that businesses and individuals alike will be able to use our service to get access to the testing they need.’

What about the antibody test?

Coronavirus antibody tests only became available very recently.

A sample of blood is analysed, and results are able to tell you whether you have had the coronavirus infection before, by looking for signs of antibodies (which the immune system produces in response to the virus, and keeps around in the body afterwards to stop you from getting the virus again). 

It’s not known for certain yet whether having had the infection previously makes someone immune to getting the virus again, but it’s generally thought that people who have been infected before are much less likely to become infected a second time.

This type of test has recently passed the developmental stage and is now available from certain pharmacies, such as Treated.com, for healthcare professionals to buy online.

These aren't approved yet for home sample collection because they require a venous blood sample. This needs to be carried out in clinical settings.

Can you buy home tests for COVID-19?

It depends on your definition of a ‘home test’. For some, this means a test where you take a sample, insert it into a test cassette, and get a result a few minutes later. This kind of test for coronavirus isn’t yet available. So if you come across a vendor claiming that their home test kit gives you a result at home, don’t be tempted by it. It’s probably an unverified (and illegal) test.

The tests that are available for coronavirus aren’t ‘home tests’ as such. For these, it’s possible to collect your sample at home, but this sample then has to be analysed in laboratory conditions. So really, it’s more accurate to describe these as ‘lab tests’.

How easy is it to pass on the coronavirus?

Much easier than previously thought. 

A huge part of the strategy in modelling infection rates and controlling the virus, not just in the UK but in other countries, is to bring the ‘R value’ of the coronavirus down to less than 1. In simple terms, the R value refers to how many other people on average a person will pass the infection on to.

As long as the ‘R value’ of an infection is higher than 1, it’s in a state of growth because the number of people with the virus is increasing, upon infecting each host. 

So for example, if the R value of an infection is 2, one person will on average spread that infection to two other people, and then those two people will pass the infection on to two other people, and so on. 

This might not sound high initially, but it is when you pass these numbers through another four subsequent infection contacts; for each person infected, it’s easy to reach higher numbers very quickly:

  • 1 person passes the infection on to 2 others (bringing the total infected to 3)
  • these 2 people pass the infection on to 4 others (bringing the total infected to 7)
  • these 4 people pass the infection on to 8 others (bringing the total infected to 15)
  • these 8 people pass the infection on to 16 others (bringing the total infected to 31)
  • these 16 people pass the infection on to 32 others (bringing the infected to 63)

and so on.

After 10 infection contacts, the total number of people infected stemming from one person, at an R value of 2, reaches 2,047.

When the coronavirus was spreading quickly in February and March 2020, it’s thought the R value was between 2 and 3. One study estimated the R value aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship to be around 2.28.

To put this into perspective, the R value for seasonal flu has previously been estimated to be around 1.4-1.6.

One of the reasons the R value for coronavirus was so high is because of its capacity to be infectious before symptoms appear. So it was much easier to pass on, because a lot of people who had it didn’t know they had it, and were self-isolating too late.

If the R value of the infection is lower than 1, one person is passing the infection on to less than one other person, and this makes it much easier to control and eases pressure on health services.

Testing and contact tracing (identifying people the infected person has been in close contact with) plays a huge part in determining what the R value is.

How will testing help ease lockdown restrictions?

The test that screens for current cases of infection can be useful at lifting isolation restrictions on an individual basis. For example, it helps health and key workers to know whether or not they are infected presently, and whether or not it’s safe for them to return to work. 

The new antibody test, which has now been approved and made available, will be able to tell people if they’ve been infected before with this strain of coronavirus. 

The UK government was exploring the idea of ‘immunity passports’, which were to be allocated to those who had tested positive for coronavirus antibodies. ‘Immunity passports’ would essentially help people identify themselves to those trying to enforce the regulations on social distancing, and would mean those in possession of such a document could return to work without hindrance. 

However, as questions have been raised surrounding the extent of immunity, and the duration to which it may last, it is not clear if this is a strategy the government is still actively pursuing.

What happens if I test positive for coronavirus?

You’ll need to self-isolate by staying at home for at least seven days. If you still have a fever after seven days, you’ll need to continue to self-isolate until this goes away. If you have no fever but still have a cough after seven days, you don’t need to continue to self isolate, but you should carry on following social distancing guidelines.

If you have symptoms, other people in your household will need to self-isolate for 14 days from the day your symptoms started. If other people in your household develop symptoms, they’ll need to self-isolate for seven days from the point at which symptoms started (so may need to isolate for longer than 14 days in total). 

You’ll also need to maintain a safe distance of at least two metres from other people in your household to reduce the risk of them becoming infected. So try to use communal areas like the bathroom and kitchen at separate times, and wipe surfaces and handles down between uses.

You should rest too. If you’re pre-symptomatic, it’s important your body has a chance to recover. So drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, and if you’re able to take them, paracetamol can help to reduce fever.

Read more about our response to coronavirus, including our offer for £1 video consultations with UK clinicians.

Page last reviewed: 11/05/2020