British firms must ‘try harder’ to make Covid tests, says Sir John Bell

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The senior Covid scientist Sir John Bell has warned British manufacturers to “stop complaining and try harder” to make working lateral flow tests, after they claimed widespread shortages were caused by undue reliance on China.

Sir John, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University and one of the Government’s leading advisers on the pandemic, hit back at complaints that domestic suppliers have not been able to secure approval for their tests.

He said there had been “quite a lot of noise from British manufacturers of lateral flow antigen tests”. 

“But British companies have been, with one exception, universally unsuccessful at making these tests,” Sir John added.

One British company, Mologic, last year claimed it had been “stonewalled” by ministers over its attempt to get its kit approved. Some firms have tried multiple times.

Sir John said the Porton Down validation lab “just fairly assesses all the products that come and with the exception of SureScreen, which did really well, the UK industry has actually done badly and everybody needs to think about that”.

“Let’s try and get as good a test as we can out to people who need it,” he added.

“That takes skill and patience and many companies have achieved a great result, so companies who cannot deliver should stop complaining and try harder.”

Sir John said supplies were “now looking good”, attributing much of the disruption to the public ordering a surplus of tests in the run-up to Christmas, to ensure they could continue seeing friends and family.

Last week, 19m lateral flow tests were distributed to the public. Officials believe the supply chain woes which plagued the country over the festive period have begun to fade.

Sir John’s comments follow growing scrutiny over where the UK is sourcing its lateral flow kits from. The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has blamed the shortage on the fact that Britain is “competing in a global market”, according to the Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale.

The majority of the lateral flow tests distributed by the NHS are manufactured in China, including tests made by US company Innova which has signed contracts with the Government worth as much as £3.7bn.

Companies have to go through a rigorous assessment process to be allowed to deliver tests through the NHS. More than 140 tests have been submitted for that assessment, and only 46 have been approved, according to the latest figures on the Government website.

Of those approved, 21 are from businesses based in China, while at least another three are manufactured there.

Only one British company has received approval from the Government’s Porton Down testing labs and is delivering lateral flow kits to the NHS from its UK manufacturing facility – SureScreen. The company this month said it was increasing its production in the UK. It makes 1m tests every day.

In December Neale Hanvey, an Alba Party MP, accused the Government of “pulling the plug on the UK diagnostics industry when additional capacity is so obviously required”.

Tim Peto, another Oxford medical academic who works with Porton Down and advises the Government on testing, said: “British companies are unhappy, and I don’t know what we can do about that. Are we really meant to spend more time on them than on others?”

A UKHSA spokesman said: “We are currently distributing record numbers of free rapid tests from manufacturers around the world, including the UK. Tests used by the UK Government go through a rigorous validation by some of the country’s leading scientists at Porton Down and Oxford University.

“Manufacturers that are unsuccessful in completing the validation process are not eligible for procurement but we remain committed to supporting British manufacturers and suppliers wherever possible.”


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