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US firm ThermoFisher says it can supply UK with 100,000 COVID-19 test kits per day

The Government’s target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day could be hit by a single company which will make tests in the UK, the firm claims.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a company based in the US state of Massachusetts, said it has the capacity to supply all of the 700,000 tests per week.

It will work 24/7 alongside authorities in the UK to supply the chemicals and instruments needed to test people for COVID-19, the chief operating officer said.

The UK only currently tests hospital patients and frontline NHS staff for the virus, meaning the true scale of the outbreak is unknown.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week pledged to make sure 100,000 tests were being carried out in the UK every day by the end of April. On Tuesday there were just shy of 15,000 tests done on a total of 12,959 people, 5,492 of whom tested positive.

Government has been forced to abandon its approach of doing all the tests in its own Public Health England laboratories and is now enlisting scientists in universities and private research institutes around the country. 

The University of Cambridge and the Francis Crick Institute in London are among the high profile facilities which will help to test NHS staff. 

Other laboratories, described as the ‘small ships of Dunkirk’ say they, too, will be vital in the fight against coronavirus and, for many of them, the types of tests required will just be another day in the office.

But NHS bosses say the testing targets are unrealistic, describing them as ‘jam tomorrow’ – a promise that never comes good.

Director of the Francis Crick Institute, a London laboratory which has started testing NHS staff, said it would be ‘a stretch’ to hit 100,000 per day. 

NHS staff are now being routinely tested for the coronavirus at drive-through swab centres around the UK. Pictured, a medical workers takes a swab at a centre in Wolverhampton

Mark Stevenson, chief operating officer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the company could definitely supply enough testing kits to feed the Government’s ambition of 100,000 per day.

We agreed with the UK that we would supply to meet their demand of more than 100,000 tests per day,’ he said.

‘We manufacture the whole sophisticated supply chain so the tests, the reagents, the instruments – this is actually our expertise… 

‘The challenge has really been making sure we have the lab capacity built up so that’s what the UK Government has been building out, these three new centres and hubs. But we have the capacity to supply those labs with the necessary reagents and tests for those kits.’

WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF CORONAVIRUS TEST?

SWAB TEST/PCR TEST

Swab test, known as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, are the ones currently being done in the UK on hospital patients and NHS staff.

The tests 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. 

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. 

Mr Stevenson said Thermo Fisher has 26 labs in the UK and 5,000 staff who would now work round the clock on the project.

The company has agreed to manufacture as much as it can in its British facilities, as part of its deal with the Government, and will use Amazon’s network to transport supplies.

One of the labs being used by Thermo Fisher is the major testing ‘hub’ recently opened by the Government in Milton Keynes.

Despite Mr Stevenson’s ambition, NHS bosses are sceptical that the 100,000 tests target is achievable in the time that Matt Hancock wants it.

In a conference call with the Health Secretary, senior health service figures said NHS labs were struggling to hit targets because they couldn’t get enough of the chemicals and instruments they needed.

They would need ‘significant’ help from private labs if the target is to be met, The Telegraph reported.

A slide from a leaked internal document showed the NHS was up against ‘global competition’ for supplies and that politicians were promising ‘jam tomorrow’ – a reference to Alice in Wonderland which means a promise that never materialises.  

The slideshow seen by the newspaper also said NHS staff ‘have pulled out all the stops to deliver the service’, adding ‘we have the people… but not the specific consumables’. 

Sir Paul Nurse, director at the privately-run Francis Crick Institute, which is testing local NHS staff in London, has also expressed concerns about the 100,00-per-day target.

He said his team is already working ‘against the clock’ and told Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee yesterday: ‘Obviously we all have to work together to try and achieve what has to be achieved. One hundred thousand is a stretch though.’

He said the strategy of relying on large laboratories to deal with tests might have worked if it had been planned two or three years previously. 

But he added: ‘We are a bit late now really, because in London we are getting up to the peak and we need all the facilities we can.’

The small private labs the NHS says it needs from appear to be keen to step forward.

Mike Fischer, who runs Systems Biology Laboratory in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, is already testing local NHS staff and said his company ‘just got on with it’.

After buying the swab testing kits online from a supplier in the US, Mr Fischer’s firm has scaled up to test 300 staff from 18 GP practices in its local area.

Mr Fischer told Good Morning Britain today: ‘There are about a thousand labs, we think, in the country with the right containment facilities and the right equipment that could be doing this.’

He said small laboratories could be easier and quicker to operate than the huge testing hubs run by the Government because they can cut out bureaucracy.

‘Decision making in government is a complex process,’ he said. ‘[Here] it really just takes my decision and we can get on with it.

‘Our labs have been doing this sort of testing for years in a much more demanding scientific environment.

‘For them it’s a little bit like being an airline pilot, being told to fly to Paris instead of to Edinburgh, what the Government’s trying to do is commission large, central laboratories and what the large commercial suppliers are doing is to programme their equipment and buy consumables for machines that are very sophisticated. 

A woman is pictured swabbing a member of NHS staff at a testing centre in Manchester Airport for a coronavirus test

A woman is pictured swabbing a member of NHS staff at a testing centre in Manchester Airport for a coronavirus test

SWEDEN WILL START ANTIBODY TESTING

Sweden has become the latest nation to announce plans to roll out antibody tests to try and work out how much of its population have been infected.

Up to 1,000 residents in Stockholm will get the self-testing kits over the Easter weekend for the KTH Royal Institute of Technology study.

The blood tests will be sent to random addresses and then posted back to the university to have the results analysed by scientists.

It is thought the test is made by the company Capitainer AB. It is not clear how accurate it is – but the results will be processed in a lab and not instantly.

British scientists have already started sampling around 500 patients a day for antibodies at a military laboratory in Porton Down, Wiltshire.

But Number 10 has not rolled out mass antibody tests because it has yet to find a kit that is accurate enough, health chiefs claim.

Yesterday it was announced antibody testing had started in the two Italian provinces where the epidemic started – Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

Tests had been trialled on up to 3,000 medical staff and will now be rolled out more widely with the aim of issuing ‘licences’ for people to return to work.

These would serve as a doctor’s note to certify someone was immune to the coronavirus and could not catch it and become ill themselves.

The Italians are not certain the blood tests will work. It is not clear who has manufactured the tests that are being used in the two provinces.

The US has already authorized the use of an antibody kit made by Cellex on an emergency basis, saying it is ‘reasonable’ to believe the test works.

China had approved eight antibody tests in its fight against the virus – including one that Britain bought three weeks ago.

Germany is also planning on starting a mass antibody testing regime in the next fortnight as part of a trial to get millions of workers out of lockdown.

‘Our labs are like the small boats in Dunkirk – we don’t carry as many passengers but we can navigate in much shallower waters, we can turn much more quickly and we have not only 1,000 labs but hopefully 1,000 independent decision makers.’

Adding to tests to to see which patients and staff are infected with the coronavirus, NHS labs will also soon start carrying out thousands of antibody tests to see who has already recovered from it.

No standalone testing kits have been deemed good enough by the Government so the Royal College of Pathologists said it has been asked to work with the NHS to do antibody tests in labs, The Times reports.

The RCP’s president, Jo Martin, said she hoped the operation could be scaled up to 90,000 tests per day in the coming months.

She told the newspaper: ‘In labs around the country there is capacity to do tens of thousands a day… We’ve got the staff and we’ve got the equipment.’

Professor Martin said the programme could offer reassurance to staff who had a cough or a fever weeks or months ago but still weren’t sure if they had been exposed to the virus.

She added that, at the moment, ‘it’s not being done very widely at all… we know staff will find that reassuring.’

As Britain ramps up its testing policy the next targets after NHS workers are expected to be people working in care homes and prisons.

Number 10’s testing tsar revealed the ‘real priority’ was to get staff in other core services, where vulnerable people live in close proximity, swabbed for the life-threatening infection.

Professor John Newton told MPs yesterday that Britain was ‘now at the point where capacity is about to increase very substantially’.

Department of Health figures last night showed 14,682 tests had been done in the last 24 hours, up from 14,006 on Monday.

That meant it is only about a sixth of the way to the target, with three weeks to go. Germany is testing around 70,000 people a day.

Professor Newton, who is a director at Public Health England, was tasked with overseeing the acceleration of Britain’s testing programme by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

At yesterday’s Science and Technology Select Committee, he revealed: ‘We’re not far off offering tests to all NHS staff that need them.’

He said tests were needed for care workers – who come into contact with vulnerable elderly people every day – and police and prison officers.

Ministers say 129 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 in 47 prisons. Twenty-nine members of staff have also been infected.

Leading scientists warn the risk of the virus spreading is ‘far greater’ in jail than it is in the wider community due to how confined the cells are. 

At least nine prisoners are believed to have died in the outbreak, with the high-security HMP Belmarsh in London recording its first fatality yesterday. 

The Ministry of Justice has already announced up to 4,000 prisoners will be temporarily released from jail and given tags to control the outbreak.  

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