No sacred cows

The antibody test that proved my wife wrong

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

20 June 2020

9:00 AM

Back in April, The Spectator ran a feature in which the partners of regular contributors wrote about what it was like being stuck in quarantine with the likes of us. What Caroline had to say was not very flattering: ‘Toby spent the first week of lockdown in bed convinced he had coronavirus. He didn’t. He is a complete hypochondriac at the best of times and this pandemic has sent his anxiety levels through the roof. He was so worried about catching it that the stress led to a bout of shingles, which is what actually laid him up.’ Ever since then I have been trying to prove to her that I really did have Covid-19, but without success.

For instance, a well-wisher got in touch to tell me he was developing an antibody test and would send me one if I was happy to serve as a guinea pig in his ‘clinical trial’. If I’d had it, as I claimed, this would be a good way of seeing if his test worked.

‘But what if I didn’t have it?’ I asked.

‘But you did have it, didn’t you?’ he said, slightly surprised.

‘Yes, yes. Of course.’

I asked him to send me six so I could test Caroline and the children as well, and they duly arrived by courier the following day. Technically, it was a lateral flow immunoassay, which meant you had to prick your finger, place a drop of blood in the well of a little plastic tray, add a few drops of the assay solution and then wait for the result. Within a few minutes it would tell you whether you had any immunoglobulin M (IgM) in your blood, in which case you were probably fighting off a recent infection, or immunoglobulin G (IgG), which suggests you had it some time ago. Alternatively, nothing would happen, indicating you’d never had it.

I took one of the plastic trays out of its sealed packet — you can only use them once — and did what was required. It works like a pregnancy test, so once you’ve submitted the sample you then have to wait for the little line to appear in the relevant place. Or not, as the case may be. Caroline was peering over my shoulder as I stared at the little tray, and the children sat round the kitchen table, eagerly looking up at me.

‘It doesn’t seem to be working,’ I said, giving it a vigorous shake. Caroline giggled and the children rolled their eyes. ‘Maybe I didn’t use enough blood. I’m going to try again.’

‘Hang on,’ said Caroline. ‘If you use another one then we won’t be able to test ourselves.’

‘Can’t be helped,’ I said, tearing the next one open. ‘I’m the guinea pig, after all.’

To hoots of laughter and derision, I pricked my finger again — this time much harder — and dripped blood into the well of the tray. Again, nothing. I then tried another, then another. Same result every time. Eventually, when I’d used up five tests, getting the same result each time, I offered the last one to Caroline.

‘What’s the point?’ she asked, eyes shining with amusement. ‘It obviously doesn’t work.’

Ever since then, I’ve had to endure hours of what my children call ‘bants’. If I complain of being tired or of having backache, one of them will say: ‘What’s the matter, Dad? Another bout of coronavirus?’

Then another will join in: ‘Want me to call an ambulance? Get you on a ventilator?’ Even Caroline chips in: ‘Perhaps you should take to your bed for a week, like the last time you had Covid-19.’

I still clung on to the hope that the tests I’d been sent were defective, so when I saw that a private testing facility had opened in the headquarters of the Honorary Artillery Company in the City — and you could get a bona fide, MHRA-approved antibody test for £48 — I decided to give it one last shot. I got on the Tube on Monday, making sure to wear my mask, and made my way to the testing centre in Moorgate. It was very professional, staffed entirely by ex-army medics, and they assured me that their test, which was similar to the one I’d taken at home, was 98 per cent accurate. I got the result within ten minutes.

On my way back to the Tube I called Caroline. ‘Looks like you’re going to be eating humble pie this evening,’ I said. She couldn’t believe it. But, sure enough, I’d tested positive for immunoglobulin G. Turns out it wasn’t man flu after all.

‘I’m a vegetarian,’ she objected.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘There’s no meat in humble pie. It’s full of things that are really good for you.’

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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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