With infection levels in the UK rising, and new restrictions on social gatherings due to come into force from Monday 14th Sept, the British prime minister has suggested that the daily processing of millions of rapid tests – capable of delivering results in as little as 20 minutes - could be used to intensify the crack down on the spread of the disease and to identify people who are negative, therefore enabling them to safely take a full role in society.
Talking during a press conference on Tuesday 9th September, Johnson claimed that the government will be piloting the approach in Salford from next month and that it hopes to have a widespread mass testing approach up and running by spring.
“Our plan – this moonshot that I am describing – will require a giant, collaborative effort from government, business, public health professionals, scientists, logistics experts and many, many more,” he said.
However, with the government still struggling to meet its current – comparatively modest – testing targets, and the technology for rapid testing still at an early stage, scientists have questioned whether the moonshot testing plan – expected to cost £100bn – is realistic.
Dr David Strain, Clinical Senior Lecturer, University of Exeter and chair of the British Medical Association’s Medical Academic Staff Committee, said: “The mass testing strategy is fundamentally flawed, in that it is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist. Existing technology has been demonstrated to miss up to 1/3rd of people who have COVID-19 in early disease. After a second test 48 hours later, we still miss over a quarter of people. It has been suggested that those who test negative are in some way less infective, but that is by no means certain. Mr Johnson’s assertion that we will be able to use this as a method to get people back to normal is rather premature.”
Indeed, during his briefing Johnson himself acknowledged that the technology and resources required to achieve this aren’t currently in place.
“There are a number of challenges," he said. "We need the technology to work. We need to source the necessary materials to manufacture so many tests. We need to put in place an efficient distribution network. And we need to work through the numerous logistical challenges."
Questioning the government’s ability to deliver such a project Dr Joshua Moon, research fellow in the Science Research Policy Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, said: “The current crisis in testing capacity just goes to show that the UK government’s assessments of testing capacity are not necessarily all that accurate. Given this, how can we even trust that this ‘moonshot’ will actually happen in practice?”
Moon added that the strategy itself is also flawed, as a negative test result doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual isn’t infectious.
“A negative result could be that the individual is truly negative and therefore not infectious, or it could be that the individual is infected but early in the incubation period so isn’t testing positive yet, or it could be that the test itself didn’t capture enough viral material on the swab or saliva to test positive. In only one of these cases should the person be moving around as normal.”
Others, however, are more confident that the government’s vision could be realised.
“Only a mass screening programme, such as this alternative plan announced by the prime minister, which involves the regular testing of all the population for asymptomatic transmitters, can keep COVID-19 under control and eventually lead to its eradication,” said Prof Jose Vazquez-Boland, Chair of Infectious Diseases, University of Edinburgh. “This can be achieved by effectively mobilising all locally available laboratories (research, academic, etc) across the country in a coordinated network.”