Media reports in the United Kingdom cite bad timing and centralization of public health laboratories as reasons the UK is struggling to meet testing goals

Clinical pathologists and medical laboratories in UK and the US function within radically different healthcare systems. However, both countries faced similar problems deploying widespread diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And the differences between America’s private healthcare system and the UK’s government-run, single-payer system are exacerbating the UK’s difficulties expanding coronavirus testing to its citizens.

The Dark Daily reported in March that a manufacturing snafu had delayed distribution of a CDC-developed diagnostic test to public health laboratories. This meant virtually all testing had to be performed at the CDC, which further slowed testing. Only later that month was the US able to significantly ramp up its testing capacity, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

However, the UK has fared even worse, trailing Germany, the US, and other countries, according to reports in Buzzfeed and other media outlets. On March 11, the UK government established a goal of administering 10,000 COVID-19 tests per day by late March, but fell far short of that mark, The Guardian reported. The UK government now aims to increase this to 25,000 tests per day by late April.

This compares with about 70,000 COVID-19 tests per day in Germany, the Guardian reported, and about 130,000 per day in the US (between March 26 and April 14), according to the COVID Tracking Project.

“Ministers need to explain why the NHS [National Health Service] is not testing to capacity, why we are falling behind other countries, and what measures they will put in place to address this situation as a matter of urgency,” MP Keir Starmer (above) said in Parliament in late March, The Guardian reported. (Photo copyright: The Guardian.)

What’s Behind the UK’s Lackluster COVID-19 Testing Response

In January, when the outbreak first hit, Public Health England (PHE) “began a strict program of contact tracing and testing potential cases,” Buzzfeed reported. But due to limited medical laboratory capacity and low supplies of COVID-19 test kits, the government changed course and de-emphasized testing, instead focusing on increased ICU and ventilator capacity. (Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have separate public health agencies and national health services.)

Later, when the need for more COVID-19 testing became apparent, UK pathology laboratories had to contend with global shortages of testing kits and chemicals, The Guardian reported. At present, COVID-19 testing is limited to healthcare workers and patients displaying symptoms of pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, or influenza-like illness, PHE stated in “COVID-19: Investigation and Initial Clinical Management of Possible Cases” guidance.

Another factor that has limited widespread COVID-19 testing is the country’s highly-centralized system of public health laboratories, Buzzfeed reported. “This has limited its ability to scale and process results at the same speed as other countries, despite its efforts to ramp up capacity,” Buzzfeed reported. Public Health England, which initially performed COVID-19 testing at one lab, has expanded to 12 labs. NHS laboratories also are testing for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, PHE stated in “COVID-19: How to Arrange Laboratory Testing” guidance.

Sharon Peacock, PhD, PHE’s National Infection Service Interim Director, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, and honorary consultant microbiologist at the Cambridge clinical and public health laboratory based at Addenbrookes Hospital, defended this approach at a March hearing of the Science and Technology Committee (Commons) in Parliament.

“Laboratories in this country have largely been merged, so we have a smaller number of larger [medical] laboratories,” she said. “The alternative is to have a single large testing site. From my perspective, it is more efficient to have a bigger testing site than dissipating our efforts into a lot of laboratories around the country.”

Writing in The Guardian, Paul Hunter, MB ChB MD, a microbiologist and Professor of Medicine at University of East Anglia, cites historic factors behind the testing issue. The public health labs, he explained, were established in 1946 as part of the National Health Service. At the time, they were part of the country’s defense against bacteriological warfare. They became part of the UK’s Health Protection Agency (now PHE) in 2003. “Many of the laboratories in the old network were shut down, taken over by local hospitals or merged into a smaller number of regional laboratories,” he wrote.

US Facing Different Clinical Laboratory Testing Problems

Meanwhile, a few medical laboratories in the US are now contending with a different problem: Unused testing capacity, Nature reported. For example, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., can run up to 2,000 tests per day, “but we aren’t doing that many,” Stacey Gabriel, PhD, a human geneticist and Senior Director of the Genomics Platform at the Broad Institute, told Nature. Factors include supply shortages and incompatibility between electronic health record (EHR) systems at hospitals and academic labs, Nature reported.

Politico cited the CDC’s narrow testing criteria, and a lack of supplies for collecting and analyzing patient samples—such as swabs and personal protective equipment—as reasons for the slowdown in testing at some clinical laboratories in the US.

Challenges Deploying Antibody Tests in UK

The UK has also had problems deploying serology tests designed to detect whether people have developed antibodies against the virus. In late March, Peacock told members of Parliament that at-home test kits for COVID-19 would be available to the public through Amazon and retail pharmacy chains, the Independent reported. And, Politico reported that the government had ordered 3.5 million at-home test kits for COVID-19.

However, researchers at the University of Oxford who had been charged with validating the accuracy of the kits, reported on April 5 that the tests had not performed well and did not meet criteria established by the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). “We see many false negatives (tests where no antibody is detected despite the fact we know it is there), and we also see false positives,” wrote Professor Sir John Bell, GBE, FRS, Professor of Medicine at the university, in a blog post. No test [for COVID-19], he wrote, “has been acclaimed by health authorities as having the necessary characteristics for screening people accurately for protective immunity.”

He added that it would be “at least a month” before suppliers could develop an acceptable COVID-19 test.

Meanwhile, in the US, on April 1 the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the qSARS-CoV-2 IgG/IgM Rapid Test developed by Cellex Inc. in N.C., the Washington Times reported. Cellex reported that its test had a 93.75% positive agreement with a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test and a 96.4% negative agreement with samples collected before September 2019.

In the United States, the Cellex COVID-19 test is intended for use by medical laboratories. As well, many research sites, academic medical centers, clinical laboratories, and in vitro diagnostics (IVD) companies in the US are working to develop and validate serological tests for COVID-19.

Within weeks, it is expected that a growing number of such tests will qualify for a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and become available for use in patient care.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

Why the UK Failed to Get Coronavirus Testing Up to Speed

Even the US Is Doing More Coronavirus Tests than the UK. Here Are the Reasons Why

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UK Ministers Accused of Overstating Scale of Coronavirus Testing

Coronavirus: Government Sets Target for 100,000 Tests Per Day by End of Month

Coronavirus Test: UK To Make 15-Minute At-Home Kits Available ‘Within Days’

Coronavirus: Can I Get a Home Testing Kit and What Is an Antibody Test?

Covid-19 Testing in the UK: Unpicking the Lockdown

Current COVID-19 Antibody Tests Aren’t Accurate Enough for Mass Screening, Say Oxford Researchers

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