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Scientists say UK Government did not take up offers of coronavirus testing help

Scientists who offered their help to the British Government’s coronavirus swab testing effort say they never heard back from officials.

Universities, private laboratories and research institutes could have been processing thousands of coronavirus tests for weeks, they say, if they had been enlisted.

A COVID-19 testing row erupted this week after Germany scaled up its testing capability to 93,000 per day while the UK was still managing fewer than 10,000.

Public Health England, a government body separate from the Department of Health, is facing the burden of blame for insisting on developing its own tests and analysing results in its own eight laboratories along with around 40 NHS sites.

Academics and private sector scientists, however, say they have the machines capable of interpreting swab tests if they were given the right information.

There are believed to be thousands of the machines – PCR machines – ready and waiting in laboratories around the country and many owners are willing to help test NHS staff to help them keep working. 

Some have already taken matters into their own hands and begun testing medical workers in their local areas.

The scientists are capable of doing PCR tests, which look for evidence of the coronavirus inside people’s DNA and are different to antigen tests, which also test for current infection but do so by trying to trigger a reaction from viruses in a sample. 

Swab tests work by collecting a sample from the nose or throat and running it through a machine which builds up and scans the patient's DNA - thousands of the machines are available all over the UK, experts say (Pictured: A patient has a swab test at a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark)

Swab tests work by collecting a sample from the nose or throat and running it through a machine which builds up and scans the patient’s DNA – thousands of the machines are available all over the UK, experts say (Pictured: A patient has a swab test at a hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark)








One man running a fully-equipped lab in Leicester told The Times his firm had offered to help the Government but was now testing private clients on its own.

He said: ‘We approached the NHS on March 17 to offer our assistance and said we were happy to use all our capacity for NHS work and we’ve been trying to get a response since then.’ 

Mr Dunn said the lack of smaller labs being involved in the testing effort was ‘a bit of a travesty’.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night said he was 'delighted to be back' after being diagnosed with coronavirus and having a week of self-isolation

Health Secretary Matt Hancock last night said he was ‘delighted to be back’ after being diagnosed with coronavirus and having a week of self-isolation

HEALTH SECRETARY PLEDGES RISE TO 100,000 COVID-19 TESTS PER DAY

Heath secretary Matt Hancock yesterday unveiled a five-point plan to boost the UK’s coronavirus testing ten-fold in a matter of weeks.

The five points he unveiled were:

Increase the number of swab tests being carried out by Public Health England labs and the NHS to 25,000 per day by the end of the month 

Shortages of chemicals and swabs have been blamed for stalling progress in this effort so far. 

Potentially PHE and NHS labs are thought to have the scope to carry out 100,000 tests a day by themselves.

Vastly expand the swab testing network using universities and research institutions and private sector retailers like Boots and Amazon

The key move by the Health Secretary was to give the green light for universities, institutes and private firms to get involved in testing.

Up to now there have been complaints of control freakery in a Government insistent on using its own facilities to avoid getting unreliable results.  

Introduce antibody blood tests which would tell people if they had had the virus and recovered

This is the game-changing test that would tell who is able to leave the constraints of lockdown and get the economy running again.

Mr Hancock stressed that there are as yet no proven versions of this test, and the science of what immunity people have after the disease is still developing.

But he confirmed that the government is looking at issuing ‘immunity certificates’ to people who pass such tests, so they can get back to ‘normal life’.

Boost community surveillance to determine the rate of infection and the spread across the country

The abandonment of community testing when the government moved from the contain phase to ‘delaying’ the outbreak was highly controversial last month.

The government wanted to focus resources on patients in hospital as number rose.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that without such mass testing in the community the government is ‘trying to fight a fire blindfolded’. 

Boost the size of the UK diagnostics industry

Mr Hancock addressed head-on criticism that the UK was lagging far behind Germany in terms of test numbers.

He bluntly admitted that the UK did not have the same scale of biotech industry as Germany, where many firms already manufacture screening equipment at scale.

But Mr Hancock committed to developing that infrastructure – which will not be a quick task.    

He thinks his lab alone could work up to completing 1,500 tests per day.

The tests in question are called polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and sample people’s DNA to look for traces of the coronavirus’s genetic material which have got mixed in, showing whether they are currently infected with the virus.

They rely on PCR machines which are widely used in biological sciences for their ability to examine DNA. 

A former regional director of Public Health England (PHE), John Ashton, said the body’s handling of the testing programme had been a ‘fiasco’.

Scientists at the University of Oxford, one of the world’s top institutions, said they also had not had their offers of help taken up by British authorities. 

Matthew Freeman, a biologist at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University said in a tweet: ‘We have many people experienced in PCR.

‘We’d love to help and have been trying to volunteer for weeks. Must be many university departments and institutes in similar position.’ 

Another lab at Oxford – the Butt Group, which studies genetics – added on Twitter: ‘I echo this sense of frustration: we volunteered on day 1 and beyond being asked 3 times to list our expertise, have heard nothing.’ 

Marc Dionne, a researcher at Imperial College London, replied: ‘Many from Imperial in the same position.’

Amid the backlash, some institutions are forging their own relationships with local NHS workers.

The Francis Crick Institute in London, one of the country’s foremost biomedicine labs, announced yesterday it is carrying out tests for staff at the Imperial College London Hospitals nearby.

It said it could scale up to 500 tests per day by next week and hopefully to 2,000 daily in the long run.

Speaking on Radio 4 yesterday the institute’s CEO, Sir Paul Nurse, urged the Government to let ‘small ship’ private labs help out with the massive testing effort.

Referring to the famous Second World War evacuation of UK forces from the French coast, Sir Paul said: ‘A metaphor here is Dunkirk, to be honest. We are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective. 

‘The government has put some bigger boats – destroyers – in place. that is a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that. 

‘But we little boats can contribute as well.’

Sir Paul said the smaller labs were ‘more agile’ to deal with global shortages of reagents. ‘We can make pipelines of reagents and chemicals,’ he said. 

‘We can move faster to deal with issues. Of course we have supply chain problems but we can reduce them by being small and agile.’

The Government yesterday hit back at claims that it has been too slow to act and accusations of control-freakery.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who last night pledged England would scale up to 100,000 tests per day by the end of April, said the Government was working hard to make sure the tests it uses are the best they can be.

Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical adviser to the Cabinet, has said in the past that the only thing worse than no test is a bad one.

Inaccurate results, Mr Hancock said at the Government briefing, would give a false sense of security and put patients’ lives at risk if they delivered false negatives.  

He said that one privately-developed test that officials had considered using turned out to be wrong 75 per cent of the time.

Mr Hancock said: ‘I understand why NHS staff want tests, so they can get back to the frontline. Of course I do.

‘But I took the decision that the first priority has to be the patients for whom the result of a test could be the difference in treatment that is the difference between life and death.

‘I believe anybody in my shoes would have taken the same decision.’ 

And he added: ‘Our ultimate goal is that anyone who needs a test can have one.

‘The new national effort for testing will ensure that we can get tests for everyone who needs them and I am delighted that the pharmaceutical industry is rising to this challenge, putting unprecedented resources into testing.

‘We took the right decisions at the rights times on the very best scientific advice.

‘Taken together, I am now setting the goal of 100,000 tests per day by the end of this month. That is the goal and I am determined that we will get there.’   

 

The little ships sailing to the rescue: Prestigious Oxford University department famed for helping to create penicillin, the world-leading Francis Crick Institute and a private lab in Oxfordshire claim they could carry out thousands of tests a day 

Number 10 yesterday abandoned the centralised testing approach of control freak health chiefs and urged the wider science industry to help boost capacity.

Matt Hancock declared the UK will conduct 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month as he finally signalled a U-turn on the UK screening regime.

It came amid warnings ‘time is running out’ to scale up mass coronavirus testing to allow Britain to get a grip of the escalating crisis – which has killed almost 3,000 people.

The chief executive of one of the UK’s leading laboratories urged the Prime Minister to summon the Dunkirk spirit and let ‘small ship’ labs start screening for the deadly infection spreading rampantly on British soil.  

The Francis Crick Institute has started swabbing NHS staff at one trust and aims to ramp up to 500 per day by next week and expand to other overwhelmed hospitals across the capital. 

Other smaller laboratories say they have volunteered to help with testing, too, among them the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University and the Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit in York.

Another – Systems Biology Laboratory in Abingdon – is testing local GP staff already and Cancer Research UK said it is also providing equipment and expert staff to help with swabbing Britons.

But scientists say there are dozens of laboratories in the UK that already have the equipment needed to process coronavirus tests, and that any ‘self-respecting’ facility would be equipped to start immediately.

So where are the little ships that are sailing to the rescue? And how many tests can they carry out every day? 

Francis Crick Institute, London 

The Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross, London, has already started testing NHS staff from local hospitals and said it hopes to scale up to 2,000 tests per day

The Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross, London, has already started testing NHS staff from local hospitals and said it hopes to scale up to 2,000 tests per day

The Francis Crick Institute, a leading biomedical science lab in London, has already started using its facilities to test NHS staff from the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust.

It hopes to scale up to 500 tests per day by early next week with the ultimate aim of doing 2,000 every day – the equivalent of around 14,000 each week. 

The institute – a partnership of leading charities and universities – will aim to provide results within 24 hours, to enable NHS staff to return to work as quickly as possible.

In comparison, only around 10,000 patients are being tested every day in Public Health England’s centralised approach. 

Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Crick, said: ‘Testing is an essential part of the national effort to tackle the spread of COVID-19. We wanted to use our facilities and expertise to help support NHS staff on the front line who are battling this virus.

‘Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour.’ 

Cancer Research UK has scientists at the Crick Institute who are involved with carrying out the tests and is also using its staff and equipment around the country to help test medical workers so they can continue working on the frontline without fears they are spreading the infection.

Executive director of research at the charity, Iain Foulkes, said: ‘They are providing desperately needed capacity at a time of national crisis, and testing NHS staff quickly so they can decide if they can return to their life-saving work. 

‘As a scientific research community, we need to beat the pandemic together – the sooner we do that the sooner our researchers can get back to beating cancer.’

Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford 

The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford, which usually studies human diseases, said it has offered help to the Government but not been commissioned

The Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford, which usually studies human diseases, said it has offered help to the Government but not been commissioned

Some scientists with the right facilities have already volunteered to help the government effort but not had their offers taken up.

Matthew Freeman, at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at Oxford University, said in a tweet: ‘We have many people experienced in PCR.’ 

The PCR machines examine DNA taken from a nose or throat swab to look for signs of viral genetic material (RNA) left behind by the coronavirus. 

This is the kind of testing currently being used by Public Health England, which has eight of its own laboratories and access to 40 in NHS hospitals around the country.  

Mr Freeman added: ‘We’d love to help and have been trying to volunteer for weeks. Must be many university departments and institutes in similar position. 

‘I’d love to know more about why we can’t be used. Would be interested to hear if others have been more successful in offering services.

‘I understand how complex it is: quality control, biosafety, ethics… But can’t help feeling that in an emergency these could have been sorted. Less complex than constructing a 5,000 bed hospital in two weeks.’

The department – famed for the development of penicillin – would normally use its machines to examine the minute workings of human infections and diseases. 

Another lab at Oxford – the Butt Group, which studies genetics – added on Twitter: ‘I echo this sense of frustration: we volunteered on day 1 and beyond being asked 3 times to list our expertise, have heard nothing.’ 

Marc Dionne, a researcher at Imperial College London, replied: ‘Many from Imperial in the same position. I’ve heard that one of the personnel shortages now is not people capable of running PCR but people capable of directing them’.

Systems Biology Laboratory, Abingdon, Oxfordshire

Systems Biology Laboratory in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is already testing staff at local GP surgeries

Systems Biology Laboratory in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is already testing staff at local GP surgeries 

Systems Biology Laboratory, a not-for-profit science company, has taken local matters into its own hands and is already testing staff at 14 GP surgeries in Oxfordshire twice a week.

The tests – it is doing around 100 per day, according to The Times – mean staff can continue to work safe in the knowledge that they don’t have the coronavirus so aren’t passing it on to patients.

Director of the lab, Mike Fischer, said he started buying the testing kits online around two weeks ago and they cost about £10 per time. He hopes to scale up to be able to do 800 tests every day. 

Mr Fischer said the lab was also using PCR tests and had ordered another 15,000. It is unclear who they bought them from or how much they cost.

He said: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 1,000 labs like that. We actually have this incredibly valuable strategic resource distributed around the country.’ 

Although Mr Fischer doesn’t have official approval as a testing centre he said the Government was aware of what he was doing and was ‘supportive’. 

Mr Fischer, who also co-founded the stock imagery company Alamy, said his team of five people could scale up tests to 500 each day once they have honed the process. 

Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit, York

One of the founders of the Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit in York yesterday claimed the facility was capable of carrying out potentially thousands of tests every day

One of the founders of the Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit in York yesterday claimed the facility was capable of carrying out potentially thousands of tests every day

One of the founders of the Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit in York yesterday claimed the facility – which mainly focuses on studying bladder cancer – was capable of carrying out potentially thousands of tests every day.

Professor Colin Garner, who said the UK must take war-time measures to fight the outbreak, claimed ‘every self-respecting laboratory will have the equipment to conduct hundreds, if not thousands, of these tests every day’.

In a call to action, he said: ‘My understanding is that the UK is building a large testing centre in Milton Keynes. Why wait for this to be built when there are labs and people sitting idle around the UK who could conduct these tests now?’

Professor Garner urged the Government to create an immediate task force comprised of the university medical and bioscience sector, cancer research labs, pharma giants, the NHS and other bodies. 

He said: ‘Just as the government called for volunteers to help vulnerable people and got 750,000 people applying, they should now put out an immediate call to all UK lab scientists and enlist them in this national effort.’

‘It is heart breaking that we are putting our medical front-line staff at risk when there is a national testing capability that could be used now.

‘A centralised lab is not the answer. Regional labs should be created and all the above organisations enlisted… The UK has some of the best scientists and facilities in the world. Let’s get them working to beat COVID-19.’ 

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