The United Kingdom is now paying the price for not carrying out more coronavirus tests, an expert has told Euronews.
The country’s current capacity stands at 12,700 tests a day, compared with Germany on 500,000 a week.
On Thursday, health minister Matt Hancock announced a plan to ramp up testing so it was at 100,000 day by the end of the month.
But Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School and expert in infectious diseases, told Euronews the country should have been at this level eight weeks ago.
“I cannot find any other explanation apart from there was an incorrect decision made, somewhere, that we would get away with not testing extensively and unfortunately, we are now paying the price for that,” said Dr Pankhania.
Latest figures show a further 684 people have died from COVID-19 in the UK, bringing the total death toll to 3,605.
Dr Pankhania is among those calling on the UK government to heed the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) by increasing testing.
On March 25, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK was raising the number of COVID-19 tests “from 5,000, to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000 and so on. Hopefully, very soon, up to 250,000 a day”.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a five-point plan, aimed at ramping up testing to 100,000 per day by the end of the month – a target he admits is a “big ask”.
Testing is “fundamental, it’s basic,” Dr Pankhania told Euronews.
“It is not extraordinary or unusual science,” he said, adding that “the tests may cost money, but it is a drop in the ocean compared to a cost to industry”.
A fundamental part of the new five-point plan is to involve companies, private organisations and universities in the drive for testing, assisting Public Health England with the production.
Euronews reached out to the Department of Health and Social Care for a figure of the number of test kits currently approved for use, but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.
The use of COVID-19 antibody home test kits are currently illegal in the UK, according to a statement by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
“There are currently no CE (certified) marked tests for home use, and it is illegal to supply non-CE marked products,” they said.
‘We should have done it 8 weeks ago’
When asked whether it is feasible to increase daily testing figures to 100,000, Dr Pankhania responded by saying, “we have to do it, we can do it and we should have done it 8 weeks ago”.
Dr Pankhania and a number of colleagues had expressed their concern about the lack of contact tracing and testing in an editorial released in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published on March 30.
When asked why there has been a lag in testing, Dr Pankhania says that, in his view, “there had not been the will to do it”.
Is testing at 100,000 per day feasible?
“The United Kingdom has a world-class biotechnology industry, scientists, and making tests is not something out of this world,” Dr. Pankhania said, adding that “this is a test we do every day, for other purposes, in clinical settings, all the time”.
“It is not difficult to do,” he said, but it does require investment and coordination. “If the will is there … you will work with everyone and anyone. It is as simple as that. It’s a simple matter of: my laboratory can do 50,000”.
“But if I ask you to do 100,000, my laboratory cannot cope. But how can I make it happen? I will talk to anyone and everyone who is competent, accredited and able to do this test, because this is a national emergency. We need to save lives.”
“Of course it is not a mammoth task if the will is there, ” he said. “Lives matter, here and what price do you put on lives? This is a no-brainer issue”. “
“It isn’t asking for trillions of money, it is asking for a small drop in the ocean to get this done, not a big drop,” he added.
Why are tests fundamental?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has reiterated the importance of accurate and widespread testing.
“This is the basics that I would teach to an ordinary infectious disease student which is a tool for controlling an outbreak,” Dr. Pankhania told Euronews.
“You need to know with precision how widespread the infection is, who is infected, who is not infected, and the only way you can tell with precision, especially for an infection like the coronavirus”.
Testing is especially important to detect COVID-19, due to many of those infected being asymptomatic. In addition, known symptoms have become varied. “Therefore, the only way to tell with precision, is to test,” Dr Pankhania added.
“With regard to the COVID-19 infection, sometimes the signs and symptoms are minimal to none, sometimes the signs are symptoms are in a way that you don’t really know if it is the common cold or is this a COVID-19 infection”.
“We should, we must, we have to test so that we know what we’re doing”.