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expert reaction to comments by Matt Hancock on BBC R4 Today that the government intends to introduce mass-testing by the end of 2020

Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said this morning in an interview on BBC Radio 4 Today* that the government intends to introduce mass-testing for COVID-19 by the end of 2020.

 

Prof Sian Griffiths, Emeritus Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and past president of the Faculty of Public Health, said:

“The move to increase mass testing and use new techniques will support efforts to encourage people to resume aspects of daily living about which they may well be nervous by providing reassurance that they – and the people around them – are virus free. Receiving this information within a faster time period will enable further consideration to be given to testing in situations such as airports – which if successfully produced at scale could enable quarantine to be moderated – and in communities where an outbreak might be suspected, enabling earlier isolation to break the chain of transmission of the virus. Coupled with the increased population testing by ONS, understanding the patterns of disease in the population will enable potential spikes to be identified earlier so pre-emptive action can be taken. Increased testing capacity underpins future management of keeping schools open and getting people back to work and will be needed this winter even if a vaccine is available.

“One of the major barriers to be overcome is how to inform and encourage larger numbers in the population, particularly those in hard to reach high risk groups, to come forward for testing. Lessons can be learnt from other parts of the world – e.g. China, South Korea, Hong Kong – where mass testing is used as a means of understanding population levels of infection and appropriate policy responses.”

 

Prof Trudie Lang, Director of The Global Health Network, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford, said:

“The rapid advances we have seen in recent weeks in the development of faster and cheaper diagnostic testing technology for COVID-19 are very significant. The UK government announced two new types of approaches, one that makes testing within hospitals faster and another that takes testing into the community. Both are important, not just in the UK but across the globe. This is because they do not require a laboratory.

“We have been calling for research and investment into point-of-care or rapid tests for COVID-19 from the outset of the pandemic. The huge hinderance to large-scale testing has been the development of affordable test kits that can detect the virus on the spot without patients or samples having to be transported to a laboratory for an expensive test to be run using specialised equipment with specific reagents. Therefore, all the associated activities that testing at scale would bring – such as effective track and trace, detection and containment of new outbreaks, and all infection limitation measures that are needed around the world, applied appropriately and specifically to each setting – have been held back. We have been reliant, until now, on the few laboratories who have had the machines, reagents and staff to process the samples; and of course, the logistics in place to collect and transport the samples to the lab and then get the results back to the patients.

“There has been huge effort within the international research community to develop new technology that enables testing without the need for a laboratory. Progress has been swift and now there are several emerging solutions, not just in the UK.

“What will be important now is for these test kits, that are either hand-held or desk-top, to be made available for use across the globe. Testing in regions of the world without access to a laboratory is now a reality if these are made available everywhere. It is therefore important that there is not a nationalist response to these new kits and that funding and access mechanisms are found so that, once fully validated, equitable and fair implementation across the globe is assured through international cooperation.”

 

Prof Michael Hopkins, Professor of Innovation Management, University of Sussex, said:

“A problem we have faced is that the more testing we do, the more COVID-19 cases we find, so getting an understanding of the real underlying trend in cases is difficult. The ONS survey and the ZOE app are tools to help us to get a more accurate view. We use these approaches to get a clear trend in cases numbers and to get an accurate map of clusters.

“The expansion of the ONS survey gives us a higher definition picture of the outbreak, allowing us to see which groups in the population are most at risk. The larger numbers of people tested will give results that we can have greater confidence in. This allows smaller changes in growth trends to be interpreted with more reliability.

“It’s good to see the ZOE app getting government support. The benefits of this app were realised by the administrations in Scotland, Wales Northern Ireland much earlier, but England is supporting it more now too.”

 

 

* https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-britain-testing-ha/britain-to-bring-in-mass-testing-for-coronavirus-idUKKCN25F0RI

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000ls8h (from 2:10:00)

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:

www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

 

Declared interests

Prof Hopkins: “I am running an international comparative study of test and trace systems across countries including the UK, Ireland, Spain, Germany, South Africa and South Korea. More details are here: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/spru/research/projects/diagnostic-testing.”

None others received.

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