UK sends 50,000 coronavirus samples to US for testing after technical problems

Testing falls below daily target of 100,000 for seventh consecutive day

The UK sent about 50,000 coronavirus samples to the US after “operational issues” meant they could not be processed in British laboratories.

The news comes after testing once again fell below the target of 100,000 a day: in the 24 hours to 9am on Saturday morning only 96,878 tests had been carried out – the seventh day in a row where the target was missed.

Confirming that samples had been sent to the US last week, first reported in the Sunday Telegraph, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said the difficulty had been a technical problem with an automated lab process, which slowed down test processing and created a backlog.

“The expansion of the UK’s coronavirus testing network has involved setting up an entirely new ‘Lighthouse’ lab network to process test swabs,” they said.

“When problems arise, we have contingencies in place, which include creating extra temporary capacity for our labs or sending swabs abroad to partner labs for completion. Of course, our partner labs must match our high standards.”

The spokesperson said the results would be validated in the UK and results sent to patients as soon as possible.

The government has also downplayed concerns that testing has fallen below the promise of 100,000 tests a day. Speaking at the government’s daily press briefing on Saturday, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said day-to-day variations in testing were to be expected, and testing was at much higher levels than when the outbreak began.

“We are now really at a high plateau, in the region of 100,000 tests per day,” he said.

While testing of patients in medical need is primarily conducted in Public Health England and NHS laboratories, as well as some testing of NHS staff, the Lighthouse “mega labs” are involved in wider testing of key workers, including testing of samples from drive-through sites. However this split varies depending on location.

Nicola Stonehouse, professor in molecular virology at the University of Leeds, who has research staff and students working in the Lighthouse laboratories, praised those working in the facilities,adding the labs were still increasing their capacity and efficiency.

But, she said, there were challenges. “Things are not running fully up to capacity, and I think there are still issues with the samples coming in, not necessarily being suitable and compatible with the automated equipment that they have got,” Stonehouse said.

“That means that therefore if things are not compatible, if the samples have not been produced in the right sort of way, then you have got to have a lot more human intervention – people have got to be involved with repackaging those samples, re-labelling those samples etc, and that obviously takes time.”

Stonehouse said questions remained about how the Lighthouse system worked, and what the tendering process involved.

“Certainly the [Lighthouse] lab at Alderley Park [in Cheshire] and the lab at Milton Keynes do not seem to be working in the same way, they don’t have the same processes,” she said, although she said that did not mean there was anything wrong with how they were conducting the tests.

But, she said, the news that the UK was sending samples to the US was puzzling.

“What I don’t understand is if there were problems at one Lighthouse lab, why they didn’t send samples to another Lighthouse lab, or to some of the NHS labs ,” she said. “The individual Lighthouse labs to my understanding do not seem to be in contact and working as a unit: they seem to be working as separate, different labs and that doesn’t seem to me to be a very logical thing to do.”

Allan Wilson, the president of the Institute of Biomedical Science – a professional body with many members working in NHS labs – expressed frustration at the Lighthouse labs, noting they had little NHS involvement.

“We don’t have much of a feel for what happens in these labs, they have kept themselves very distant from the NHS labs, so we don’t know what happens in them,” he said.

Wilson believes the situation would be more transparent if the NHS was closely involved in the Lighthouse labs.

He said: “We can’t get information about what testing they are doing and how they are doing the testing because it is very much a closed shop and the staff there haven’t been allowed to speak to the public about what they are doing.”

Dr Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading, said it was important to know the context of the tests sent to the US, for example whether they were urgent samples from patients in hospital, or tests among key workers to see if they can go back to work.

“The point is we can’t answer those questions about why the tests are being processed in that way, unless we know what the need is and what sort of samples they are,” he said. “Without knowing why the tests were taken it just adds to the chaos and confusion.”

Edwards said sending samples to the US could be a cheap and quick way of clearing a backlog. He also noted that it was difficult to scale up testing, and that it was “unfair” to expect it to be a normal, everyday, working system.

But he said the challenges would increase once contact tracing was added into the equation.

“If it is hard setting up just raw testing capacity, it has got to be even harder to set up testing capacity linked to a track-and-trace service,” he said.

Prof Gordon Dougan of Cambridge University found it hard to believe that the UK was having to resort to sending samples overseas, adding that local and rapid testing was vital – particularly as the country moved out of lockdown.

“One of the disadvantages of remote-testing centres is speed and logistics,” he said. “Sending samples over distance can be logistically challenging and the sample has to pass through many hands before the information gets back to the point of origin where it is needed – the tested individual. The UK Lighthouse centres are a great effort on the part of those setting up tests and they have my complete support but I can see no obvious logic in sending samples overseas. Indeed, I find it hard to believe we are actually having to do this.”

But while Dougan said the local testing centre in Cambridge set up by his team had already tested more than 3,000 healthcare workers in Cambridge University hospitals, establishing similar centres as part of a wider effort would be difficult.

“We need to translate this type of effort into the community but the logistics of retrospectively setting up a system like this when we have neglected the infrastructure over the years is challenging, to say the least,” he said.


Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

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