UK spends £1bn on Johnson’s fast testing ‘moonshot’


Boris Johnson has positioned his religion in thousands and thousands of low-cost, dependable exams that present leads to minutes as a route out of future lockdowns attributable to a resurgence of coronavirus.

Talking just a few hours earlier than Tuesday’s announcement that Liverpool could be the primary metropolis within the UK to conduct population-wide testing for Covid-19, the prime minister declared that the short turnround exams would “allow us to defeat this virus by the spring”.

As England prepares to enter its second nationwide lockdown on Thursday, the federal government’s Operation Moonshot plan to ship a mass inhabitants testing programme is again underneath the highlight.

In accordance with paperwork reviewed by the Monetary Occasions, the Division of Well being has awarded contracts value no less than £1bn to corporations offering fast testing. Lots of the applied sciences relating to those contracts will feed into the Liverpool trial, through which everybody dwelling or working within the metropolis will probably be eligible for a check from Friday.

The technique will hinge on new lateral circulate exams, which give leads to 20 minutes and could be carried out on both a throat or a saliva pattern, in addition to typical swab exams and loop-mediated isothermal amplification (Lamp) expertise.

The pilot is anticipated to final about two weeks, with exams being deployed by the military, and will enable academics, pupils and hospital employees to be examined weekly.

However scientists have raised considerations over the accuracy of a few of the lateral circulate exams getting used, that are vulnerable to lacking circumstances of energetic an infection. In the meantime, delays in assessing applied sciences produced within the UK have led to frustration over authorities contracts being awarded to abroad corporations.


The federal government has thus far signed no less than 10 contracts with corporations based mostly within the UK, US and China, totalling greater than £1bn, for fast testing expertise and logistics, based on publicly obtainable contracts on the EU public procurement web site, Ted, and knowledge shared with the non-profit authorized agency the Good Regulation Challenge.

The FT shared its calculations with the Division of Well being, which declined to touch upon the contracts, citing business sensitivity.

Regardless of a drive to turbocharge the UK diagnostics business, the contracts present that the Division of Well being spent £138m on thousands and thousands of lateral circulate exams produced by US firm Innova, whose exams will probably be used within the Liverpool pilot.

It has spent greater than £80m on two exams made by US corporations Abbott and LumiraDX, which can be being supplied by the prescribed drugs retailer Boots, based on the paperwork. One individual near the procurement course of stated the federal government had additionally spent an unspecified sum on lateral circulate exams produced by the Chinese language firm Zhejiang Orient Gene and the Korean medtech firm SD Biosensor.

One other contract printed final week exhibits that the federal government spent greater than £1.35m to fly lateral circulate exams from China to the UK, though it didn’t disclose additional particulars.

“We’ve but to discover a UK-based lateral circulate check that’s adequate,” based on an individual straight concerned within the validation course of

The Innova exams, anticipated to play a essential function within the Liverpool trial, have been discovered to have 100 per cent specificity, avoiding false positives, and 96 per cent sensitivity, avoiding false negatives, in scientific trials.

Nevertheless, the corporate’s directions state that the exams can choose up infections from individuals “who’re suspected of Covid-19 by their healthcare supplier inside the first 5 days of the onset of signs” and that they’re designed to be used by skilled healthcare and laboratory employees.

“The Innova check shouldn’t be accepted for neighborhood use,” stated Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at Birmingham college. “That is harmful and never how science ought to proceed.”

One individual near the validation course of stated that some area research of the exams in neighborhood settings, akin to universities, had produced poorer outcomes than others, indicating the necessity for sturdy coaching.

The completely different testing applied sciences

The federal government has principally targeted its funding on 4 testing applied sciences.

Whereas the gold-standard reverse transcription polymerase chain response (PCR) exams are extremely correct, they’re time consuming to course of and require lab tools and scientific experience to analyse. They permit scientists to take a pattern containing a really small quantity of virus RNA, convert it to DNA, and multiply it so it may be detected.

Restricted lab capability and issues with the availability of reagents have meant that turnround instances have remained stubbornly excessive for RT-PCR testing, with fewer than one in 4 outcomes returned inside 24 hours, opposite to what Mr Johnson promised in June.

To deal with the issue, a contract printed in September exhibits that the federal government spent £6.4m on two state-of-the-art “Finish Level PCR” machines that may every course of as much as 150,000 samples per day. They have been trialled at a authorities laboratory in Milton Keynes final month, based on the contract. 

Lamp exams have been heralded by some as a extra environment friendly different to conventional RT-PCR. Although they’re typically a lot quicker than typical swab exams, for probably the most half Lamp expertise nonetheless requires laboratory processing, which takes time and sources.

The federal government has signed contracts value greater than £430m with two UK corporations, Optigene and Oxford Nanopore, for the availability of Covid-19 Lamp exams.

Contaminated people have Covid-19 of their saliva. Exams utilizing saliva samples have been discovered to detect as a lot of the virus as does a throat swab. Some corporations, akin to Chronomics, have developed PCR exams that work on saliva samples.

Exams that give outcomes on the identical level they’re administered, often known as level of care exams, are thought of the federal government’s greatest wager for ramping up testing. Some use the lateral circulate expertise, the place a saliva or swab pattern is put right into a nicely, a liquid reagent is added and a line seems in a window indicating optimistic or damaging. 

Not like RT-PCR exams that search for the virus’s genetic materials, lateral circulate exams are inclined to search for a protein antigen that lives on a virus’s floor. As these don’t amplify the virus, they’re much less prone to detect decrease ranges.


On Monday, the federal government introduced that it had handed its 500,000 day by day check goal. However insiders say extra bold end-of-year targets have been scaled again due to the sluggish charge with which new exams are being cleared to be used.

A presentation given by NHS Take a look at and Hint in mid-September, seen by the FT, exhibits that the federal government had hoped to run 1.5m exams a day by the top of October, and as much as 3m exams a day by the top of January.

A government-backed undertaking referred to as the Condor programme, run by researchers at Oxford and Manchester universities, has drawn a lot of the criticism for the sluggish validation course of.

Researchers operating Condor have acknowledged frustration on the velocity, which they share, however stated it was completely essential that the exams the inhabitants used have been sufficiently correct.

One individual concerned within the authorities’s testing technique stated of Condor: “Have you ever seen a snail go backwards?”

The federal government has since arrange a separate, however parallel, group to validate new applied sciences, managed out of a Public Well being England science park at Porton Down.

The Division of Well being stated it was working “tirelessly to ensure everybody who wants a check can get one”, together with by new expertise to “check extra individuals and ship fast outcomes”.


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