Scientists hope Norwich could be pilot city where everyone is tested for coronavirus

Scientists have suggested everyone in Norwich could be tested for coronavirus. Picture: Mike Page

Scientists have suggested everyone in Norwich could be tested for coronavirus. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Mike Page

Scientists have suggested Norwich could serve as a trial city in the battle against coronavirus - where mass testing could see every resident checked for symptoms once a week.

Director of the Earlham Institute, Prof Neil Hall. Photo from Earlham Institute.

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

The ambitious idea has been mooted by experts, including Professor Neil Hall, the director of the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park.

Discussions have been held with hospitals, health bosses, the University of East Anglia and councils about the possibility of getting tests at home for everyone in the city.

Scientists are keen to carry out a trial, which could begin with just a few wards in the city and could grow to cover more of the population.

The idea is that it would enable them to “get ahead” of the virus and help shed vital information on how and where it transmits - and the role of asymptomatic people in doing that.

Through testing and contact tracing, it would build up a comprehensive picture of how coronavirus spreads - information which could be used nationally to figure out responses to the virus.

The concept that Norwich could be a pilot city for such testing came after a letter was sent to the medical journal The Lancet, in which leading scientists said universal testing could be the way out of the pandemic.

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The letter suggested urgently trialling the method on a city of around 200,000 people - and scientists believe Norwich could fit that bill.

Prof Hall said: “It’s a concept that lots of people across the research park, in consultation with others, such as councils, have been putting forward.

“We have been discussing with government nationally about the potential for the city coming under a national testing programme.

“We have been looking at funding from philanthropists and foundations to get enough investment for a pilot to test how it would work.

“We have a population which is a good size, with a relatively low incidence of COVID-19 and a lot of trained molecular biologists across the research park.”

Talks about how the testing kits would be distributed are ongoing, but there have been discussions about whether taxi drivers, Army reservists and bin collectors could be used to deliver and collect swabs.

Those swabs would be taken to laboratories and processed.

Those who test positive would be asked to isolate, before contact tracing would try to stop the virus from spreading.

The idea has been backed by former North Norfolk MP and ex-health minister Sir Norman Lamb.

Sir Norman said: “I really do hope that the government is willing to be open minded about this.

“Getting out of lockdown safely to enable our economy to fire up again is clearly of critical importance.

“I fear that the government is putting all its eggs in one basket with the national testing and tracking app.

The problem with that is that the take-up of that elsewhere is not been that high, so there are people who do not think that is a clear and obvious solution.

“But if you are testing a whole population, that would allow those who are asymptomatic to be picked up. These are people who are going around infecting people without realising it.

“If you had the sort of testing and tracing which this project is talking about, they could be identified and picked up very quickly.

“We have got the experts here who can help us get out of this national crisis. Surely it makes sense to invest in that as a potential way out of the lockdown?”

According to a Daily Mail report, A Department of Health source said the Norwich proposal, along with one for Southampton to serve as the trial city, were being considered.

That source was quoted as saying that: “We may end up engaging with the proposals but it is not something that will happen imminently.”

A spokesman said: “We have significantly and rapidly increased our testing capability and are working to ensure everyone who needs a test can get one.

“We continually consider options to extend testing, but have no immediate plans for city-wide testing.”

While it would cost millions of pounds to organise and do the testing, the thinking is that it could boost the economy as people could be freer to go about their business because of the regular testing and tracing.

The University of East Anglia has said it is ready to contribute expertise if the government gives the project the green light.

Prof Dylan Edwards, pro-vice-chancellor for the UEA’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, said: “The University of East Anglia has always been at the heart of the community in Norwich and we would be proud to play our part in this project if it gets the go-ahead from the government.

“UEA’s scientists, health professionals, public health experts, students and alumni have already done much to support the city’s Covid-19 effort – developing new tests, 3D printing PPE, producing hand sanitiser, and treating patients in hospital.

“While this proposal is still at an early stage, Norwich Research Park clearly has a critical mass of expertise and infrastructure that makes the city an ideal location for piloting mass testing as a safe way of lifting lockdown measures.

“UEA’s specific role in the project would be to contribute researchers and academics to carry out the testing and help understand the impact of the virus on the health of the population.”

MORE: Coronavirus lockdown easing: What can and can’t you do?

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