We appreciate the UK government is doing its best to ramp up COVID-19 testing. There are two types of tests we need to help fight the virus. 1) finding if a person is infected with COVID-19. This requires testing using PCR. 2) finding if a person has been infected, which requires an immunoassay test. The simplest of these tests uses ELISA plates and the more complicated uses a lateral flow device like a pregnancy test kit.
Who can help?
When I was a research scientist working in both academia and university spin out companies my laboratory did hundreds of PCR and ELISA tests a day. Every self-respecting medical or bioscience laboratory in the UK will have the necessary equipment to conduct COVID-19 testing every day.
So why has the government not asked / commandeered / enlisted facilities and people to do these tests? I live in York and I know close by me there would be suitable labs in the following organisations / departments:
- FERA, Sand Hutton – a government agency lab!
- The Department of Biology, University of York
- Jack Birch Cancer Research Unit, York
- Covance Laboratories, Harrogate – a massive commercial Contract Research Organisation
- Bioscience labs at the universities of Hull, Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds, Hudderfield etc.
- Cancer research laboratories at York, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford
- The Yorkshire and North East Genomic Laboratory Hub, Central Lab, Leeds.
I am sure there are many more than this list local to me. If you then replicate this around the UK you can see that probably hundreds of thousand of tests could be delivered NOW.
Every pharmaceutical and biotech company with UK based research labs will have the capability of carrying out these tests. Every UK university with a medical science / bioscience facility has the capability of doing these tests. Cancer Research UK labs around the country as well as the Francis Crick Institute, London should be enrolled in this effort.
All the above labs will have the capability of producing the reagents and will have these in stock. For the PCR test, as we know the sequence of the virus, then tests are available today. Indeed as reported here they were available in February 2020. For detecting people with antibodies against the virus, the ELISA test is based on taking a suspected patients blood and testing it for antibodies against the virus – see HERE and HERE.
We are at war in the UK against the COVID-19 virus and we must take war-time measures. My understanding is that the UK is building a large testing centre in Milton Keynes. Why wait for this to be built? There are labs and people sitting idle around the UK who could conduct COVID-19 tests now. The Government should create an immediate task force comprised of the university medical and bioscience sector, cancer research labs, the UK pharmaceutical and biotech sector, the ABPI, the NHS, the BIA and the AMRC.
Just as the government called for volunteers to help vulnerable people and got over 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. We must use regional labs and all the above organisations enlisted. We need to be creative here. The UK has some of the best scientists and facilities in the world. Let’s get them working to beat the virus with proper COVID-19 testing.
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