Norwich is hoping to find the key to ending the lockdown by testing all its 140,000 citizens every week for coronavirus.
Scientists working in the city’s labs want to be the first in the UK to check every resident so they can track the virus and halt its spread.
They hope their ambitious plan will allow a little more freedom to its residents before a vaccine for Covid-19 is found.
Scientists in Norwich, best known for its impressive cathedral (pictured), want to be the first city in the UK to test every resident for coronavirus
Experts say the scheme is the best way to ‘get rid of the pandemic’ and save the economy. If successful it could be extended across the country.
Norwich and another provincial city, Southampton, have submitted proposals to the Department of Health to pilot mass testing schemes.
In Norwich, best known for its impressive cathedral and as the home of Colman’s mustard, bin men, taxi drivers and Army reservists could be used to deliver and collect swabs from households.
The barcoded samples would be taken to laboratories and processed by a team of biologists in batches. It could cost just £1 per test.
Those who test positive would be asked to isolate and then ‘aggressive’ contact tracing would take place to try to stop the virus spreading.
The rate of asymptomatic infections, which pose the biggest threat, could be also be tracked – giving the Government vital information about the virus’s transmission.
The project would use the same testing method currently used by the Government to detect Covid-19.
The test, done by taking a cheek swab, is sent to a lab to seek evidence of the ‘antigen’ – the virus causing the illness.
Bin men, taxi drivers and Army reservists could be used to deliver and collect swabs from households in Norwich (Picture: Stock)
The project leaders want to find an estimated £2million in funding, which should allow them to test every resident every week for three months. They are in talks with ministers and private donors.
Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre in London, said testing everyone – not just those with symptoms – is ‘essential’ for exiting lockdown before a vaccine is found.
And former health minister Sir Norman Lamb said the project could be ‘gold dust’ in finding a safe way to lift restrictions.
The project was inspired by a letter written by Professor Julian Peto and a group of more than 30 leading scientists to the Government which called for ‘universal repeated testing’ as a way to leave lockdown and restart the economy.
The letter, published in The Lancet medical journal, suggested urgently trialling the method on a city of around 200,000 people.
If successful, they said, it should be extended nationally with ten million tests per day.
Vo, an Italian town near Venice, managed to eradicate the virus in two weeks through rigorous testing of its 3,000 residents in March.
Prof Peto, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘It’s blindingly obvious if you just test everyone you can stop an epidemic.
‘It’s going to cost a couple of bob but the alternative is destroying the economy and having hundreds of thousands of deaths – this will just get rid of the epidemic.’
Professor Neil Hall came up with the idea to try the testing project in Norwich last month after one of his colleagues suggested it would be the perfect city for the trial.
Prof Hall, the director of the city’s Earlham Institute – where the majority of the testing would take place – spoke to geneticist Professor Enrico Coen, who had also been working on this idea with Sir Norman and his sister Dr Kirsten Lamb, a retired GP.
The University of East Anglia and other local organisations are also involved.
And last week Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s office called for an urgent meeting with the scientists.
A Department of Health source said that with spare testing capacity now available, and more likely to come on stream, the proposals by Norwich and Southampton are being considered.
‘We have had different cities bidding for this,’ the source said. ‘We may end up engaging with the proposals but it is not something that will happen imminently.’