Scientists who want to test everyone in Norwich for coronavirus hail pilot scheme success

The Earlham Institute in Norwich has taken part in a pilot project for coronavirus testing. Picture:

The Earlham Institute in Norwich has taken part in a pilot project for coronavirus testing. Picture: Anthony Cullen - Credit: Anthony Cullen

Scientists who want to do weekly tests for coronavirus on everyone in Norwich say a pilot project has shown it could help spot ‘silent spreaders’ - amid fears the current test and trace system is “woefully underpowered”.

Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. Photo: The Earlham Institute.

Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. Photo: The Earlham Institute. - Credit: Earlham Institute.

Researchers at Norwich Research Park have been trying to convince the government such testing would identify people who have COVID-19, but do not have symptoms.

And they say a pilot project, involving almost 800 students and staff at Norwich Research Park, shows how asymptomatic ‘silent spreaders’ could be spotted via weekly testing.

Launched in July, the pilot project was done by the Earlham Institute, the University of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory - all based on Norwich Research Park.

Sample analysis was carried out at the Earlham Institute with support from the UEA and funded by the partners, with support from local charities.

The Earlham Institute. Photo: Norwich Science Festival

The Earlham Institute. Photo: Norwich Science Festival - Credit: Norwich Science Festival

More than 3,000 tests were done, with each participant asked to self-administer nose and throat swabs twice a week from home.

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Samples were dropped off at collection points on the park and analysed at the Earlham Institute.

Around 85pc returned all four samples for testing, with 8pc returning three, 5pc returning two and just 2pc a single sample.

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The majority were processed within 24 hours, with the fastest results returned nine hours after samples were dropped off.

No positive samples were detected, but the researchers say it shows a weekly testing scheme across a city could work - and they see Norwich as the perfect place for such a scheme.

They have made a fresh call on the government, which said in May it had no plans for a citywide scheme, for support and funding.

Professor Neil Hall, director of the Earlham Institute and one of the architects of the initiative, said: “We need to stop playing catch-up with coronavirus.

“So-called ‘silent spreaders’ appear to be the norm, rather than the exception, which means the current approach to testing is woefully underpowered to prevent a second wave.

“We’ve reached a point in the UK where testing has been radically scaled up, cheaper and quicker tests are being developed, and labs across the country are in a position to contribute to the national effort.

“If we can source funding and get the support from government to roll out community testing here, it provides a template which could be shared and replicated in other towns and cities across the UK - not to mention future pandemics.”

Professor Dylan Edwards, pro-vice-chancellor for the UEA’s faculty of medicine and health sciences and one of the project coordinators, said: “During this pilot, regular testing has helped protect a small community and reassured them they’re not unknowingly spreading the virus.

“It’s now time to introduce a programme of mass population testing so we can see exactly where the virus is, how it’s spreading, and act rapidly to disrupt the chain of transmission.”

The researchers at the Earlham Institute and University of East Anglia are now looking to work with public health leads and other lab sites to share knowledge and prepare for the rapid implementation of Government-backed community testing.

David Parfrey, executive chair of Norwich Research Park, said: “Testing has been recognised as one of the most significant aspects of aiding a safer return to normal life.

“Our colleagues here on our park recognised that they have the skills and capacities to run a study like this in a bid to help the national response.

“Collaboration is in the DNA of all who work and study at our park and yet again this has delivered another great idea to help us deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Norwich Research Park has a huge amount of expertise in biological sciences and Norwich is a city with a strong sense of community.

“We want to find new ways of channelling this great combination of scientific talent and community spirit to help bring this situation to a safe end.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We welcome the drive for innovation to support our response to this unprecedented pandemic and continue to explore how new technology could open up increased testing opportunities in terms of both scale and locations.

“Over 15 million tests have been delivered so far and we already have the capacity to carry out more than 330,000 tests per day and are aiming to grow capacity to 500,000 tests per day by the end of October.”

The call for citywide weekly testing comes at a time when 75 workers at Banham Poultry in Attleborough have tested positive for COVID-19, triggering a partial closure of the factory. And bosses at Norfolk County Council, who recently sent letters to 450,000 Norfolk homes reminding people that coronavirus is “still with us”, are braced for a second wave of the virus.

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