Blog

09Apr

Science and Technology Committee Evidence Session

Yesterday afternoon the Science and Technology Committee held a virtual hearing on COVID-19 testing. The purpose of the session was two-fold a) to capture contemporary evidence for future scrutiny, and b) to allow the application of lessons in the interim. The session was split into three sections:

  1. Different international approaches to testing
  2. Capacity for increasing testing in the UK
  3. How the Government will reach its targets to significantly increase testing

Key points raised in the sessions were:

  • Testing is recognised as a key component of the early detection of cases which allows health authorities to respond adequately and limit fatalities through targeted interventions
  • Professor John Newton (Director of Health Improvement, PHE) acknowledged that pre-existing determinants limited the UK’s ability to replicate a testing approach similar to that of Germany’s
  • The UK is now in the position to exponentially increase its testing capacity, with the view that contributions from academic and private labs are essential to complement PHE’s ‘mega labs’ during the initial stages
  • The target to achieve 100,000 tests per day by the end of April is appropriate in the and reflects a balance of the UK requirement and what is achievable. The target does not include any antibody tests although work is underway to improve reliability
  • Innovation and involvement of industry and academia are encouraged at all stages with the Government acknowledging the degree of risk

 

Blood samples

 

Carol Monaghan MP did helpfully ask a questions on blood samples, noting that she heard directly from companies raising the issue of accessing blood samples and asked what more the Government could do to make infected blood samples more available to companies producing diagnostic tests. In response Steve Bates said that innovators may access blood where this can be linked to clinical trial work as there is significant infrastructure in place to do so. 

 

Set out below is a summary of each of these sections and the recording of the session is available here.

 

Different international approaches to testing

Panel:

  • Professor Gabriel Leung, Chair, Public Health Medicine, Hong Kong University
  • Dr Seon Kui Lee, Director, Division of Risk Assessment and International Cooperation, Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC)

 

Key points:

  • The Committee heard from public health experts from Hong Kong and South Korea, drawing comparisons between the UK’s approach to testing and the relative success of the respective countries’ strategies in limiting the pandemic
  • Professor Leung and Dr Lee described how testing has been a key component in the respective strategies, with the view that early detection at every stage of the pandemic allows for effective intervention, whether that is the isolation of early cases or the effective utilisation of vaccination in subsequent waves
  • Extensive contact tracing is recognised by the Hong Kong and South Korean authorities as a core component of the response
  • Templates for testing strategies were built in response to past outbreaks with the view that flexibility is essential for responding to new learnings

 

Capacity for increasing testing in the UK

Panel:

  • Steve Bates, Chief Executive Officer, Bioindustry Association (BIA)
  • Sir Paul Nurse, Director and Chief Executive, Francis Crick Institute

 

Key points:

  • Sir Paul identified several barriers to UK testing capacity, including the Government’s reliance on ‘mega labs’ which require time to establish, and workflow issues, such as regulatory barriers which are less suitable for an emergency response. He said that smaller providers of tests and those who adopt a looser dynamic approach would help meet the national need
  • Other barriers identified by Steve Bates include the time to integrate industry with public systems, but the BIA is working with industry to establish best practice and standards
  • Steve Bates said that the UK testing effort has been in ‘hyper-speed’ since the publication of the 5-pillar strategy to scale up testing programmes on 4 April, and there were no barriers for industry to work with the NHS despite public comments
  • Mr Bates also confirmed that there was no foreseeable shortage in the supply of reagents required for antigen tests, but rather, there are logistical challenges which act as “pinch points”
  • On the role of industry in producing tests, Mr Bates recognised that innovators are keen for individual blood samples but expressed the difficulties in achieving this in a fast-moving environment. He said that innovators may access blood where this can be linked to clinical trial work as there is significant infrastructure in place to do so
  • Sir Paul recognised that the Government’s target of 100,000 per day was a “stretch”, but Mr Bates was optimistic about the ability of industry to achieve this

 

 

How the Government will reach its targets to significantly increase UK COVID testing

Panel:

  • Professor John Newton, Director of Health Improvement, Public Health England
  • Kathy Hall, Director of COVID-19 testing strategy, Department for Health and Social Care
  • Professor Stephen Powis, National Medical Director, NHS England

 

Key points:

  • Professor Newton, the newly appointed ‘testing chief’, explained that many elements of the Government’s 5-pillar testing plan had been underway for some weeks, but its publication was more of an acknowledgement of work done which also established a target for the future
  • The target to achieve 100,000 tests per day by the end of April is appropriate in the eyes of Professor Newton and reflects a balance of the UK requirement and what is achievable. The target does not include any antibody tests although work is underway to improve reliability
  • Both Professor Newton and Professor Powis acknowledged that the UK’s testing capacity is somewhat below the desired level, but that current capacity is appropriate based on the Government’s strategy, with 65 NHS and PHE labs on track to meet the 25,000 swab tests per day by the end of April
  • Kathy Hall said that the challenges in meeting the Government’s targets are publicly defined: the availability of materials and components, logistics, and the quality and accuracy of tests
  • The involvement of industry and academia in the fifth pillar of the Government’s strategy is necessary to reduce overreliance on established but pressured supply chains, with the degree of involvement balanced with the risk innovation, brings

 

MPs present:

Greg Clark MP (Conservative, Chair), Darren Jones MP (Labour), Carol Monaghan MP (SNP), Jeremy Hunt MP (Conservative, present on invitation as Chair of the Health Select Committee), Zarah Sultana MP (Labour), Aaron Bell MP (Conservative), Chris Clarkson MP (Conservative), Katherine Fletcher MP (Conservative).

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