Ministers face fresh fury on lack of mass coronavirus testing


Michael Gove today admitted the government’s coronavirus testing operation must go ‘further, faster’ after Downing Street suggested a target of 25,000 daily checks may not be met until the end of next month. 

The Minister for the Cabinet Office said the lack of availability of crucial chemicals which are needed in the testing process was a ‘critical constraint’ on the UK’s efforts. 

He said Boris Johnson and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock were now working together to try to source the globally in-demand material that Britain needs. 

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, Mr Gove said: ‘While the rate of testing is increasing we must go further, faster. A critical constraint on the ability to rapidly increase testing capacity is the availability of the chemical reagents which are necessary in the testing.

‘The Prime Minister and the Health Secretary are working with companies worldwide to ensure that we get the material we need to increase tests of all kinds.’ 

Critics today labelled the UK’s efforts a ‘catastrophe’ and ‘dismal’ when compared to what is being done in Germany where 500,000 tests are being carried out every week. 

Downing Street had earlier hinted at Mr Johnsons’s apparent frustration at the slow progress on ramping up Britain’s capacity, with a spokesman saying he wants ‘as much progress to be made on this as possible’. 

The UK is currently managing just under 10,000 tests a day with the government having previously said it wants to get to 25,000 by the middle of April.

But today Number 10 said the timetable was ‘mid to late April’ – seemingly an admission that efforts have stalled. 

Politicians from different parties are now lining up to criticise the government’s approach while business chiefs are doing the same. 

Jeremy Hunt, the Tory former health secretary, said mass testing in the community must be carried out by the government while Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage said the efforts so far were an ’embarrassment’.

Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne told MailOnline the government’s ‘dismal’ handling of the testing crisis will send vast numbers of British businesses to the wall – and delay the country’s economic recovery. 

Experts have insisted ‘organisation’ rather than a shortage of facilities is to blame for the painfully slow rise in checks.

However, there are also suggestions that the UK is struggling to obtain enough of the tests themselves, with Germany seemingly able to acquire them from domestic manufacturers while Britain is having to import them. 

It came amid reports that NHS England and NHS Wales ended up bidding against each other for testing equipment at the end of last week, prompting the four Home Nations to agree that all procurement will be done in Whitehall.

Michael Gove today said the UK must go 'further, faster' in ramping up its coronavirus testing efforts

Michael Gove today said the UK must go ‘further, faster’ in ramping up its coronavirus testing efforts

A nurse takes a swab from an NHS worker at a testing facility in Chessington yesterday

A nurse takes a swab from an NHS worker at a testing facility in Chessington yesterday

Germany has been conducting 500,000 tests a week and is aiming to hit 200,000 tests a day in the near future. 

Part of the difference between the UK and Germany is reportedly that the latter has more tests available domestically. 

There are also claims that a shipment of testing kit parts from the European mainland has been found to be contaminated with the virus, in another potential delay. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted this morning that the government was struggling with the logistical challenge of increasing testing, saying it was not a ‘trivial or straightforward’ task.

‘This is never going to be enough,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. We always need to be pushing.’

Ministers boasted on Sunday that they had reached a target of 10,000 tests a day.  

However, while the capacity has been reached, the government has yet to actually carry out that number. The latest figures from Public Health England were 8,278 in the 24 hours to 9am on Sunday, which was actually down from 9,114 the previous day.  

The numbers have sparked widespread concerns about the UK approach to testing. 

Mr Hunt, the chairman of the Health Select Committee, said it would be ‘very worrying’ if the UK chose not to follow the lead of the likes of Germany and South Korea. 

He said mass testing allows for ‘a lot less’ disruption to daily lives because those who have the disease can be isolated and prevented from passing the virus on.  

He said: ‘It is internationally proven as the most effective way of breaking the chain of transmission.

‘So however difficult it is to source the reagents, to ramp up the capacity of laboratories up and down the country, it is essential that mass community testing is part of our national strategy.’

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Mr Farage told MailOnline: ‘Testing is a catastrophe. It’s an embarrassment. We do not appear to have done anything in six weeks to get ourselves in a better position on this.

‘If I was an NHS frontline worker waiting week after week after week for this I would be furious.’

He added: ‘70,000 tests a day in Germany, a million tests now conducted in America, and we in six weeks have managed to do as many tests as the Germans do in two days.

‘Everybody wants to believe in their leader during a crisis and everyone has given Boris the benefit of the doubt… I think public opinion is beginning to ask very serious questions.’

Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne told MailOnline that the government’s ‘dismal’ handling of the testing crisis will send vast numbers of British businesses to the wall – and delay the country’s economic recovery.

The gym mogul and former Dragons’ Den star said: ‘The Government must get on top of testing immediately. The longer we are in lockdown the more businesses will go bust. 

‘My business hands over £39million to the Government every year in VAT, PAYE and corporation tax. As long as we are closed they get nothing.

‘Their handling of the testing issue has been dismal to say the least.’         

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted this morning that the government was struggling with the logistical challenge of increasing testing, saying it was not a 'trivial or straightforward' task

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted this morning that the government was struggling with the logistical challenge of increasing testing, saying it was not a ‘trivial or straightforward’ task

CHEMICAL REAGENTS: NECESSARY FOR TESTING BUT IN HIGH GLOBAL DEMAND 

A global shortage of the chemicals needed to produce coronavirus tests has emerged as another setback in the UK’s plans to test more people.

Industry bosses say chemical reagents that are used in the test are in short supply around the world as countries have scrambled to test their citizens for COVID-19. 

Lab tests for the coronavirus work by regrowing a patient’s DNA in a lab and examining it to find traces of genetic material left behind by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For this to work, technicians need a chemical called a reagent to trigger the chemical reaction which starts the process. 

There are various types of reagents which can be used in a COVID-19 test, supplied by different companies around the world, but they are in high demand everywhere. They are not unique to coronavirus and are the same reagents used in tests for illnesses such as flu.

The US has 10 different types of reagent listed in the priority list by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not clear whether the UK is using reagents manufactured on home soil or importing them. 

Some NHS labs have now resorted to make their own in ‘home brew’ situations so they can test patients, The Times reported.

Officials are now scrambling to see if there are alternatives to their first choice, according to the newspaper, and are also trying to shore up supplies of swabs, which are vital for tests.

CEO of pharmaceutical company Roche, Severin Schwan, said ‘demand is outstripping supply’ for the reagents. ‘Widespread testing is simply not possible,’ he added.

While the Professional Association of Laboratory Medics in Germany said: ‘The materials required for testing – sample kits, materials for extracting samples, and reagents – are becoming scarce’.

The Australian Medical Association sounded the alarm there two weeks ago, when it said some parts of the government had failed to stockpile the right reagents, The Guardian reported.

It said global demand was ‘exceeding supply’ and that ‘there are particular concerns around supplies of swabs and DNA extraction kits’.

Professor Anthony Costello, an ex-director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) who is now based at University College London, dismissed the idea that the UK does not have enough laboratory facilities to process the tests. 

‘We need a policy of mass community testing as well as the blunt instrument of social distancing,’ he told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme. 

‘We need to do that because we want to arrow in on detecting cases and contact and quarantine. We need to have enough tests to protect our health workers… 

‘But most important when we want to loosen up the lockdown we want to have control over that. 

‘There will be much less disruption if we can do that rather than isolating the entire economy.’

He went on: ‘In answer to can we do it, we have 44 molecular virology labs in the UK. 

‘If they were doing 400 tests a day we would be up to Germany levels of testing and that is perfectly feasible.

Asked whether he was saying that the UK has the capacity but is just not organising it properly, Prof Costello said: ‘Yeah, correct. I don’t see why we cannot get these 44 molecular virology labs up and running, finding the cases and testing. 

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‘PHE were slow and controlled, and they only allowed non-PHE labs to start testing two weeks ago. But that was after the strategy shift to stopping community tests.

‘We need to be like Korea…. their death rate is three per million and they have suppressed the virus.’ 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has praised countries like South Korea have for their wide-scale testing regimes, which have helped limit cases.  

However, the UK shelved efforts to test everyone with symptoms on March 12, when Britain’s response moved into a ‘delay’ phase.

Instead people who thought they had the illness were urged to self-isolate unless their conditions became so severe they needed medical help. 

Amid criticism, Mr Johnson then declared just under a fortnight ago that there would be a big expansion of tests from under 5,000 a day to 25,000. 

Routine testing is only just being offered to NHS staff, with 800 per day expected to get access to tests. There are fears that many will have been put at risk, amid complaints that they do not even have enough personal protection kit.  

A global shortage of the chemicals needed to produce coronavirus tests has emerged as another setback in the UK’s plans to test more people.

Industry bosses say chemical reagents that are used in the test are in short supply around the world as countries have scrambled to test their citizens for COVID-19. 

Lab tests for the coronavirus work by regrowing a patient’s DNA in a lab and examining it to find traces of genetic material left behind by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

For this to work, technicians need a chemical called a reagent to trigger the chemical reaction which starts the process. 

There are various types of reagents which can be used in a COVID-19 test, supplied by different companies around the world, but they are in high demand everywhere. They are not unique to coronavirus and are the same reagents used in tests for illnesses such as flu.

Germany is set to start mass immunity testing within weeks 

Germany has also been leading the way on testing for individuals who have already been through the virus and emerged with immunity. Such checks could potentially allow people to be issued with certificates saying they are safe to go back to work – easing the lockdown crippling the economy.

The UK government has ordered 17.5million ‘antibody’ tests, but they have yet to go through clinical trials and it is not clear when they can start being used.

A study due to start in Germany in mid-April will see the blood of more than 100,000 volunteers tested for Covid-19 antibodies. 

The process will be repeated at regular intervals, with the sample scaling up to track the progress of the epidemic.

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: ‘Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach. 

‘I’ve repeatedly called for more testing and contact tracing in the UK, and we should be looking at initiatives like this closely.’ 

The US has 10 different types of reagent listed in the priority list by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is not clear whether the UK is using reagents manufactured on home soil or importing them. 

Some NHS labs have now resorted to make their own in ‘home brew’ situations so they can test patients, The Times reported.

Germany has also been leading the way on testing for individuals who have already been through the virus and emerged with immunity. Such checks could potentially allow people to be issued with certificates saying they are safe to go back to work – easing the lockdown crippling the economy.

The UK government has ordered 17.5million ‘antibody’ tests, but they have yet to go through clinical trials and it is not clear when they can start being used.

A study due to start in Germany in mid-April will see the blood of more than 100,000 volunteers tested for Covid-19 antibodies. 

The process will be repeated at regular intervals, with the sample scaling up to track the progress of the epidemic.

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said: ‘Germany appears to be leading the way in the testing and we have much to learn from their approach. 

‘I’ve repeatedly called for more testing and contact tracing in the UK, and we should be looking at initiatives like this closely.’  

The scale of the problem facing the UK was underlined today with figures suggesting the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak could be 24 per cent higher than NHS figures show.

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Patients who had COVID-19 mentioned on their death certificates numbered 210 in England and Wales up to March 20, the Office for National Statistics revealed.

That was 24 per cent higher than the 170 deaths recorded by NHS England and Public Health Wales during the same time frame.

If the ratio has stayed true since that time, the true current number of fatalities could be around 1,739 instead of the official 1,408. 

Lord Hague today warned Mr Johnson he must show UK businesses a ‘way out’ of the coronavirus crisis by the end of April – or risk thousands of firms permanently closing their doors. 

Lord Hague said many businesses will choose to shut down if they are not given ‘hope’ in the form of a government plan for what will happen after the current state of lockdown ends.

The former foreign secretary said the government’s blueprint for recovery must include a ‘massive and compulsory’ testing programme so the UK is better able to withstand future outbreaks of the deadly disease.  

He said the ability to test and trace people in the way that South Korea has been doing will be key because it will give ministers the ability to contain the spread and allow businesses to stay open. 

The ex-Tory leader said a failure to pursue massive testing capacity would likely result in the UK facing an economic depression rather than just a recession. 

And he called for one minister to be put in charge of overseeing the development of the future action plan so they are not distracted by day-to-day events.

The Tube line was much less busy this morning amid signs the public is starting to heed the government's coronavirus lockdown

The Tube line was much less busy this morning amid signs the public is starting to heed the government’s coronavirus lockdown

Germany is already conducting 500,000 tests a week and is hoping to increase numbers to 200,000 per day soon. Pictured is a technician at a lab in Berlin

Germany is already conducting 500,000 tests a week and is hoping to increase numbers to 200,000 per day soon. Pictured is a technician at a lab in Berlin

What are the different tests for coronavirus? 

ANTIBODY TEST

An antibody test is one which tests whether someone’s immune system is equipped to fight a specific disease or infection.

When someone gets infected with a virus their immune system must work out how to fight it off and produce substances called antibodies.

These are extremely specific and are usually only able to tackle one strain of one virus. They are produced in a way which makes them able to latch onto that specific virus and destroy it.

For example, if someone catches COVID-19, they will develop COVID-19 antibodies for their body to use to fight it off.

The body then stores versions of these antibodies in the immune system so that if it comes into contact with that same virus again it will be able to fight it off straight away and probably avoid someone feeling any symptoms at all.

To test for these antibodies, medics or scientists can take a fluid sample from someone – usually blood – and mix it with part of the virus to see if there is a reaction between the two.

If there is a reaction, it means someone has the antibodies and their body knows how to fight off the infection – they are immune. If there is no reaction it means they have not had it yet.

SWAB TEST

Antibody tests differ to a swab test, known as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which aims to pick up on active viruses currently in the bloodstream.

A PCR test works by a sample of someone’s genetic material – their RNA – being taken to lab and worked up in a full map of their DNA at the time of the test.

This DNA can then be scanned to find evidence of the virus’s DNA, which will be embroiled with the patient’s own if they are infected at the time.

The PCR test is more reliable but takes longer, while the antibody test is faster but more likely to produce an inaccurate result. It does not look for evidence of past infection.

ANTIGEN TEST

Antigens are parts of a virus that trigger the immune system’s response to fight the infection, and can show up in blood before antibodies are made.

The key advantage of antigen tests is that it can take several days for the immune system to develop enough antibodies to be picked up by a test, whereas antigens can be seen almost immediately after infection.

Antigen tests are used to diagnose patients with flu, as well as malaria, strep A and HIV. Antigen tests can give rapid answers – depending on which ones are being used.

 

 



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