A paid-for Facebook ad and a website for Corona Test Centre London, a COVID-19 antibody test provider, seen in May 2020:
a. The paid-for Facebook ad featured an image of several socially distanced people wearing overalls and facemasks, and the claim “We are on a mission to safely get you back to your friends and back to work”, followed by a clickable link with a button to “Book now”.
b. The home page on the website www.coronatestcentre.com, included the claims “Accurate COVID-19 Results”, “Peace of Mind” and “Antibody testing will tell you if you've had the virus and developed an immune response”. Another page titled “Consent Statement”, included the claims “Positive IgG and Positive IgM: You’re recovering from a recent COVID-19 infection and have a level of immunity” and “Positive IgG Negative IgM: You’ve recovered from COVID-19 and have a level of immunity”.
IssueTwo complainants challenged whether the claims that the tests could indicate whether users had immunity to COVID-19 were misleading.
XMedical Ltd stated that they made efforts to ensure that the information they presented to the public was informative and accessible. They said that their testing centre had been visited by thousands of people, including NHS professionals. They said that their advertising partner was increasing the awareness of the “Corona Test Centre” brand and that they were not directly selling or promoting the sale of test kits. They said that they had removed the ad from Facebook, Instagram and Google.
They said that ad (b) was not an ad because it was their home page and their consent page. They said that the test was accurate and that the claims “Accurate COVID-19 Results”, “Peace of Mind” and “Antibody testing will tell you if you've had the virus and developed an immune response” in ad (b) were factually correct. They provided a study which they said demonstrated this. They also provided the manufacturer’s instruction sheets for the intended use of the testing kits and a Declaration of Conformity.
They said that the antibody test’s purpose was to tell people whether or not they’d had the virus and had developed an immune response. This immune response was the production of IgM and IgG antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and the presence of antibodies conferred a level of immunity. They said that they had not suggested that antibody testing results could be used to change or inform behaviour and that their Consent page on their website encouraged consumers to follow Government guidelines.
The ASA welcomed XMedical’s removal of ad (a). We understood that the antibody test provided by XMedical was a CE-marked in vitro diagnostic medical device intended for the detection of antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2. The test involved samples being taken in a clinic by a trained medical professional. CE certification in itself did not constitute evidence for medical efficacy claims, and advertisers needed to ensure that they held evidence for such claims.
XMedical had argued that ad (a) did not explicitly reference antibody testing kits. However, we considered that the title “Corona Test Centre London”, together with the clickable link “Book now” and the fact that it was a sponsored post, would be understood by consumers to be an ad for antibody testing. Furthermore, in that context, we considered that the statements “We are on a mission to safely get you back to your friends and back to work” and “Get your answers” would be interpreted by readers to mean that XMedical’s tests were capable of indicating whether or not someone could safely return to work and to social gatherings without fear of contracting or passing on the virus. In summary, that the tests would indicate if they were immune.
We understood that ad (b) was a website which marketed XMedical’s antibody testing services, and we therefore considered it to be an ad which was within the ASA’s remit. Ad (b) included the claims: “Find out the stage of your recovery and help protect your loved ones”; “Accurate COVID-19 Results”; “Peace of Mind”; “Antibody testing will tell you if you've had the virus and developed an immune response. This is particularly important for asymptomatic people who may unknowingly spread COVID-19 to people they love in high risk groups”; “Positive IgG and Positive IgM: You’re recovering from a recent COVID-19 infection and have a level of immunity”; and “Positive IgG Negative IgM: You’ve recovered from COVID-19 and have a level of immunity”.
We noted that there was no information in the ads which explained that a positive antibody result did not mean that a person was immune. We considered that consumers were likely to understand from the ads that a positive antibody test would show that they were immune to COVID-19, and would enable them to get back to work and other normal activities without the risk of contracting the virus again or transmitting it to others.
As of 13 July 2020, Guidance published by the Department of Health and Social Care stated that there was no strong evidence yet to suggest that those who had been proven to have had the virus and to have produced antibodies were immune. Further, it stated that receiving a positive antibody result did not mean that a person was immune, or that they could not pass the virus on to others. It also did not mean that social distancing measures could be ignored. The Guidance explained that because COVID-19 was a new disease, understanding of the body’s immune response to it was limited and it was not known how long an antibody response lasted, whether the antibodies produced were effective in neutralising the virus, or whether having antibodies meant a person could not transmit the virus to others. It stated that the value of antibody tests was currently limited to answering the question of whether or not someone has had the virus, and providing data and a greater understanding on the spread of the virus.
XMedical Ltd provided details of a pilot study of a of a GP practice in which 50 plasma samples were collected from staff and patients with and without symptoms of Covid-19 in order to examine two different testing methods and their ability to detect antibodies. The study related to the accuracy of the test in detecting antibodies and did not constitute evidence that the presence of antibodies indicated immunity, which was the message that consumers were likely to take from the ads. Taking into account Government advice on the link between antibody testing and immunity, we concluded that the impression given by the ads that the tests would indicate whether consumers were immune to COVID-19, was misleading and breached the Code.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules
Marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so.
Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.
Marketing communications must state significant limitations and qualifications. Qualifications may clarify but must not contradict the claims that they qualify.
Objective claims must be backed by evidence, if relevant consisting of trials conducted on people. Substantiation will be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge.
Medicinal or medical claims and indications may be made for a medicinal product that is licensed by the MHRA, VMD or under the auspices of the EMA, or for a CE-marked medical device. A medicinal claim is a claim that a product or its constituent(s) can be used with a view to making a medical diagnosis or can treat or prevent disease, including an injury, ailment or adverse condition, whether of body or mind, in human beings.
Secondary medicinal claims made for cosmetic products as defined in the appropriate European legislation must be backed by evidence. These are limited to any preventative action of the product and may not include claims to treat disease. (Medicines, Medical devices, health-related products and beauty products).
The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told XMedical Ltd to ensure that they did not state or imply that a positive antibody test would show that consumers were immune to COVID-19.