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expert reaction to journalists’ questions about ’little ships’ and testing locations for COVID-19

There have been reports in the media that many smaller private laboratories and institutions are re-purposing themselves to conduct testing for COVID-19, described by Sir Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick institute, as the “little boats” (institution laboratories) supporting the “big ships” (government laboratories).


Prof Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics, University of Bristol, said:

“We have been setting up to do PCR testing in my lab at the University of Bristol for the last 10 days. We have been doing this at the request of PHE and in partnership with them – and the request is obviously becoming stronger and more urgent as time passes.

“We could expand capacity – more machines and people – but for us as for PHE the rate limiting factor is the supply of necessary reagents and from our perspective that is the most important immediate issue.

“We are also setting up serology assays (antibody tests) which will also become increasingly needed as the epidemic progresses. In that case the supply of reagents is less likely to be an issue and most of them are readily available and we have a ready supply of virus and viral antigens from our own labs.”


Prof Eleanor Riley, Professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease, University of Edinburgh, said:

“On March 17th, an email from members of the NHS National Laboratories programme was circulated amongst the Edinburgh infectious disease community of researchers and clinicians asking for volunteers to assist with SARS-CoV2/COVID-19 screening.  Less than 3 hours later, 180 technically very highly qualified people had volunteered.

“Today, April 2nd – over two weeks later – I received a similar request  from the Department of Health and Social Care. Crucially, today’s email asks for volunteers to work in one of three centralized testing laboratories – in Milton Keynes, Cheshire and Glasgow. Of these, only Glasgow is likely to have a substantial local research community to draw on.

“What – if anything – has happened to build on that first wave of recruitment? Is there any intention by Public Health England (or Health Protection Scotland) to establish a network of local laboratories able to rapidly receive, process and report on tests from their local NHS and care staff?”




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