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27 Oct 2020 7:52
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  •   Home > News > International

    Mass testing is the UK's pathway out of coronavirus, according to Boris Johnson. Experts aren't so sure

    With coronavirus ripping through the UK once again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he can get everyone back to a relatively normal life by next year. The only problem? Few experts believe he can pull it off.

    With two hours to go before showtime, musical theatre star Jay McGuiness should be doing his vocal warmups. Instead, a nurse is inserting a swab deep into his nasal passage for his daily COVID-19 test.

    He has already had 30 tests so has become accustomed to the sensation. He almost seems to enjoy it.

    "I go to my happy place," he said.

    The entire London cast and crew of Sleepless, a musical based on Sleepless in Seattle, are being tested daily to guard against COVID-19 outbreaks.

    While audience members wear masks and remain socially distant, the cast members can hug each other.

    It's almost unthinkable in a country where COVID-19 cases are rapidly rising.

    But the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to take the theatre's regular testing strategy and apply it to the entire kingdom.

    He has introduced new restrictions on pubs, restaurants and social gatherings this week, but is pinning his hopes on an ambitious mass testing program he's dubbed Operation Moonshot.

    The proposal, which would cost the UK up to $180 billion, would allow people to return to a semi-normal life — even without a vaccine.

    "That's the hope. That's the dream," Mr Johnson declared in a televised address on September 23.

    But with the UK already struggling to cope with its current testing demands, experts have serious doubts about the Government's ability to fulfill that dream.

    Here's what Operation Moonshot would involve

    Boris Johnson's Government is aiming to achieve 10 million tests a day by early next year.

    "That level of tests would allow people to lead more normal lives without the need for social distancing," Mr Johnson said when announcing the strategy in early September.

    Under the plan, some test results would be available in as little as 20 minutes.

    "Theatres and sports venues could test all audience members ... and let in all those with a negative result," the Prime Minister said.

    "Workplaces could be opened up to all those who test negative in the morning, to behave in a way that was exactly as in the world before COVID-19."

    There's one big problem: the necessary speed and scale is not possible using current testing technology.

    "All this progress is contingent on continued scientific advances. I cannot 100 per cent guarantee that those advances will be made," Mr Johnson conceded.

    Sir Chris Ham, co-chair of the National Health Services Assembly, said the Government needed to be more realistic.

    "We shouldn't be shooting for the moon. We should plant our feet firmly on the earth," he told the ABC.

    Current testing capacity is just 263,000 per day and many people with COVID-19 symptoms are waiting several days to get tested.

    Other patients are being advised to visit testing facilities hundreds of kilometres away due to laboratory backlogs.

    Up to 185,000 tests still need to be processed, according to the UK Independent.

    "It's not unusual for our Prime Minister to set out very bold and ambitious ideas," Sir Chris Ham said.

    "The difficulty is, how is he going to deliver those ideas in practice? There is a bit of a trend of our current Government over-promising, and under-delivering."

    Dr David Strain, co-chair of the British Medical Association's academic staff committee, also called on Mr Johnson to focus on the current testing logjam.

    "He's been promising a robust test and trace service and an app. And yet neither of those have been delivered," he told the ABC.

    "Now he's promising tens of millions of tests per day, when we can't even get those basics right."

    The rapid tests can spit out results in 30 minutes

    To achieve its goal, the UK Government will need to harness technology being used by the private sector.

    The private daily COVID-19 screening at the Sleepless theatre production costs about $45 per test and provides cast and crew with their results in as little as 30 minutes.

    Samples are tested in a portable on-site machine, which looks like a high-tech rice-cooker. The results are then delivered to cast members' mobile phones via an app.

    Sleepless co-star Kimberley Walsh said once she is given the all-clear, she can go backstage with confidence.

    "It's working really well and everybody feels safe," she said.

    The rapid tests achieves 97 per cent sensitivity, according to the supplier, Geneme.

    Critics say Moonshot is 'fundamentally flawed'

    The UK Government is also considering digital "passports" that would allow people to more more freely if they have tested negative to COVID-19.

    However, Dr Strain said that would risk giving people a false sense of security.

    "Using this sort of technology to say that it's safe to enter a theatre, or it is safe to enter a football venue is fundamentally flawed."

    He said the current "gold-standard" in COVID-19 testing uses "very robust technology" known as a Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction test.

    However, it generally requires laboratory analysis that takes several hours.

    The 30-minute test has the advantage of speed, he said.

    "It requires very little training, and it does genuinely give a result — similar to what the Prime Minister suggested — as simple as a pregnancy test."

    But he said neither test was perfect, because they couldn't detect the virus unless the genetic material is gathered by the swab.

    "It's all looking for a virus that may not be in the mouth, or the airways, but still is present in the lungs and in the body," he said.

    Dr Strain said future mass-testing capacity would be better used to aggressively hunt for asymptomatic people in the community, rather than deciding who enters theatres or stadiums.

    Costs of lockdown are 'insane'

    The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the UK's economy. It shrank by a record 20.4 per cent between April and June.

    Close to 750,000 jobs were lost during the lockdown and more may be shed when the government's furlough scheme winds up in October.

    Millions of school and university students have had their educations disrupted.

    Colin Brown, the founder of Nex.D advisory, which is trying to expand Geneme's testing in Europe, said the $180 billion price tag of the Moonshot plan should be viewed in context.

    "The costs of lockdown are insane in comparison to the costs of mass testing," Mr Brown said.

    Geneme is now trying to develop a robotic machine, like an ATM, which could process up to 450 saliva samples an hour.

    Mr Brown said the machines could be installed in public areas to help identify asymptomatic infections.

    "The key to actually stopping the virus, ironically, is not testing sick people. The key to stopping the virus is actually testing the mass population," he said.

    Sir Chris Ham said the Government will need to bring together a fragmented network of testing providers, technologies and logistics to get its Operation Moonshot off the ground.

    "You want to encourage people with new ideas to test those ideas and bring them into operation," he said.

    "I hope our Government will be able to show the kind of leadership and execution of plans that has been lacking so far."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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