Nhs labs across the country that process covid-19 tests have been hit by shortages of vital chemicals and kit used to test for a range of diseases following a problem at one of europes biggest pharmaceutical companies.
The swiss pharma giant roche one of the biggest suppliers of the machines, chemicals and equipment used to process covid-19 tests by nhs labs across the uk wrote to labs on monday alerting them to the disruption. it blamed an issue at a new automated warehouse which had caused a very significant drop in our processing capacity.
The disruption, coming days after the government said it had missed 16,000 covid-19 cases because of a data glitch, puts more pressure on efforts to increase coronavirus testing amid a spike in infections. england recorded another sharp increase on tuesday with 14,542 new cases reported.
The roche letters have already sent shockwaves through the nhs. clinicians fear the situation will exacerbate existing shortages in supplies of diagnostics equipment, both for coronavirus and other diseases.
Allan wilson, president of the institute of biomedical science, said roche had been unable to fulfil a broad range of orders across the testing range, including covid-19 diagnostics as well as those needed to determine courses of treatment for cancer patients.
The slightly scary thing is we don't have an end date to it yet, he added. if this isnt fixed within days there would be an impact on our ability to do not just covid testing but a broad range of lab testing.
Tom lewis, lead clinician for pathology at north devon district hospital, said roche provided the swabs used by his lab for covid-19 testing.we have enough supply for another week or so but will run out if expected delivery doesnt happen, he said.
The nhs said: roche has alerted hospitals to an issue with their supply chain and they will be working urgently to resolve this issue.
A large number of nhs labs rely on roche testing platforms to undertake conventional covid-19 tests, known as pcr tests.
Testing machines require an ingredient known as a reagent a substance used for chemical analysis to run pcr tests and most platforms need a specific reagent that does not work on other platforms, as with printer ink for a printer. labs that have roche testing machines rely heavily on its reagents.
Dr lewis said his lab has stopped performing common blood tests for kidney function and other illnesses in gp surgeries and primary care because of the shortage of kit from roche.
He said his lab had enough supplies to test severely ill patients but it will be very tight and we will run out if it goes on for 3 weeks.
Roche said in a statement that it deeply regretted that there has been a delay in the dispatch of some products.
It added that the group was prioritising dispatch of covid-19 pcr and antibody tests and was aiming to ensure no impact on nhs supply.
Separately, the uk government announced it had bought 1m of its long-awaited antibody tests from the uk rapid test consortium, a partnership between oxford university and four diagnostics firms. these can show whether someone has previously contracted covid-19.
The health department said the aim was to help build a picture of how the virus has spread across the country and further develop our understanding of how antibodies work.
The test uses a fingerpick device and delivers a result within 20 minutes without the need to be sent to a lab for analysis and therefore has no impact on testing lab capacity, the department said.
Jon deeks, professor of biostatistics at birmingham university and lead author of a continuing review into antibody testing by cochrane, the independent global health organisation, criticised the lack of publicly available evidence on the new antibody test purchased by the government.