A British entrepreneur has given £1 million to help small laboratories across the UK provide COVID-19 tests for frontline workers.
Mike Fischer CBE promised the funds to the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network, which launched on Wednesday.
The project aims to encourage laboratories to use their specialist equipment – most notably their polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines, which are commonly used for genetic testing – for coronavirus testing.
One expert told Sky News that if enough laboratories used their PCR machines for COVID-19, they could test everyone in the country.
“These PCR machines are in every university and commercial lab in Britain so I’m sure you’ve got 14,000 of them,” said Professor Julian Peto, a cancer epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“If the people who are already operating those machines turned over to testing to the virus, you’d be able to test everyone in Britain once a week, and you’d be able to test every other day people who come into contact with patients – nurses, doctors, the NHS in particular.”
Mr Fischer, who founded the stock photography company Alamy, owns a non-profit medical research lab in Oxford, called SBL.
The small facility, which has three full-time staff, two containment hoods and two real-time machines, is currently conducting 100 tests a day for 10 local GPs, using the Centre for Disease Control protocols for testing.
Once the lab gets used to the system, Mr Fischer told Sky News it could manage 500 a day – something which could be achieved in similar labs around the country.
“If other labs could join the effort we could quickly scale to providing tens of thousands of tests a week,” he said.
On Wednesday Downing Street admitted that only around 2,000 NHS frontline staff in England and Wales have been tested for the virus since the outbreak began.
At Number 10’s daily briefing, Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, said the government’s “intention” was to increase testing for frontline staff from “thousands to hundreds of thousands within the coming weeks”.
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Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the Volunteer Testing Network could be a useful complement to the government’s central programme.
“Anything is going to help if it can help up the numbers, even by a few 100 or few 1000 a day,” she told Sky News. “But this is a national problem that needs a national solution.”
The news comes after the government faced mounting criticism for its inability to increase the rate of testing in the UK, which is lagging behind other countries in tests per capita.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove blamed a shortage of chemicals for the delay.
To ramp up testing for frontline staff, the government has requisitioned PCR machines for its new testing facility in Milton Keynes.
A source familiar with the facility said it was close to operational, saying, “It’ll hum much faster than anything else we’ve seen before.”