The UK government has selected three British companies to make rapid Covid-19 tests, as it seeks to shake off its reliance on foreign producers and create a domestic diagnostics industry that is prepared for future outbreaks of infectious disease.
The Department of Health has selected Omega Diagnostics, SureScreen and Global Access Diagnostics to produce up to 2m lateral flow devices (LFDs) per day for the UK, according to two people briefed on the decision.
On Sunday ministers announced a new drive to increase workplace testing in sectors where workers cannot work from home during lockdown, easing the criteria for joining the programme to businesses with more than 50 employees. Previously only firms with over 250 employees were able to join the programme.
The government has been intent on developing a domestic diagnostics industry since early last year when the Covid-19 crisis forced ministers to confront the lack of domestic sources of critical medical resources. In particular, it has sought to reduce its reliance on China for key imported goods as part of what has been dubbed “Project Defend”.
Speaking in front of MPs on Wednesday, Baroness Dido Harding, the head of Test and Trace, said “there is very much an ambition to create a domestic UK manufacturing capacity” for LFDs, tests that provide results in under 30 minutes and have been the subject of fierce criticism.
As part of this drive, the government last year paid the consulting firm PA Consulting £6.2m to find suitable British manufacturers of LFDs, and to help scale up manufacturing to reach 2m tests a day by April 2021.
Unlike conventional polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which look for the virus’s genetic material and can take up to a day to process, LFDs do not need to be analysed in a laboratory. The tests look for protein antigens that live on a virus’s surface and work by adding a liquid reagent to a saliva or nasal swab sample.
A scientific row has broken out about the accuracy and safety of these tests after several studies found they miss up to 60 per cent of active infections. One group of researchers continues to trumpet the devices as the only viable way of identifying the large portion of the public that experience no symptoms of the disease, while another says they are likely to kill many more people than they save.
The government, which has doubled down on its rollout of LFDs in spite of the debate, has been almost entirely reliant on limited supplies from the US and China and is desperate to scale up domestic production.
According to publicly available contracts, it has spent at least £1.5bn on the tests — and last month closed a tender worth a further £912m. The bulk of the spending has gone to US company Innova, which has received £1bn in contracts to procure hundreds of millions of devices which are manufactured in China.
The DoH has spent £170m on air freight of these tests from China to the UK since the beginning of the pandemic, the contracts state.
Global Access Diagnostics, which currently has 70 employees but is planning to hire another 210 by April, is a high-volume manufacturing enterprise in Bedfordshire, which spun out from the diagnostics firm Mologic last year. It has received close to £1m in funding from the UK government and about £10m in equipment, according to Mark Radford, the company’s executive director.
It aims to expand its annual production of lateral flow tests from 40m to 250m by early May.
SureScreen, a firm based in the east Midlands that has supplied 2m lateral flow tests to the UK government, has received £11.3m in funding, according to publicly available contracts.
Omega Diagnostics, which has bases in Scotland and Cambridge, SureScreen and Global Access Diagnostics all declined to comment on contracts with the government.
The health department said: “We now have the largest diagnostic network in UK history, and our procurement strategy for testing ensures the UK has the supplies needed to support both the existing symptomatic testing and the expanding programme of asymptomatic testing being carried out.”