US scientific equipment maker Thermo Fisher will be able to supply all the coronavirus tests needed for the UK government to ramp up screening to 100,000 a day, the company’s chief operating officer said on Thursday.
Mark Stevenson told the BBC’s Today programme that Thermo Fisher had agreed with the government to supply “more than 100,000 tests per day” and would scale up its manufacturing capacity in Britain to enable the kits to be manufactured here.
Government ministers have come under heavy criticism for failing to roll out testing quickly enough, which they have blamed in part on shortages of essential supplies, such as swabs and chemical reagents.
The government announced last week its intention to increase the number of diagnostic PCR tests being done for the virus to 100,000 a day by the end of April, from about 15,000 at the moment.
Paul Nurse, director and chief executive of London’s Francis Crick Institute, which is supporting the testing effort, said on Wednesday that the goal was “a stretch”.
In order to rapidly scale up the pace of testing, the government has put out a call to arms to industry to build a “British diagnostics industry at scale”.
As part of this, pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline will set up a new testing lab with Cambridge university, which aims to process 30,000 samples a day by the start of May.
The government has also set up a task force of more than 100 companies to help provide additional supplies of testing machinery and consumables that are in short supply globally, such as swabs.
Despite concerns about shortages, Mr Stevenson said on Thursday that “the challenge has really been making sure we have the lab capacity”.
There are three new laboratories being set up by the government that should meet this need. “We have the capacity to supply those labs with the necessary reagents and kits,” he said.
Despite scepticism about whether the 100,000 target is possible, Professor John Newton, the government’s adviser on testing, told a House of Commons inquiry on Wednesday that the goal was “feasible”.
Kathy Hall, director of Covid-19 testing strategy at the Department of Health, also told the committee that the government was “confident” it would meet the target.
Prof Newton said the three new labs would help achieve “exponential growth” in testing. The army would also help establish “pop up services” across the country where necessary, he added.
He said the reason the UK had not been “able to respond” as quickly and efficiently as countries such as Germany was for “a whole host of [pre-existing] reasons”.
Asked at the hearing whether the National Health Service had been sufficiently prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic, Sir Paul said: “I suspect we were not prepared enough. I’m told there were issues.”
He referenced a stress test done on the NHS “a while ago” to determine whether it could cope with a pandemic, which the organisation failed. “Maybe there were lessons that should have been learnt from that,” he said.
Although the government had hoped to roll out antibody testing — which screens for whether someone has recovered from the disease and has possible immunity — it emerged this week that none of the 17.5m kits it had ordered worked well enough to be used.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Prof Newton admitted that the government did “not expect to be doing antibody testing before the end of April”.