Scientists ‘ready and poised’ for Norfolk Covid-19 mass testing - if government says yes
- Credit: Si Barber
A Norwich laboratory, behind a test which can show if somebody has Covid-19 within 15 minutes, is ready to answer a call from the government to use it for mass testing in Norfolk and beyond.
Mass testing is being rolled out to almost 70 more areas as the government looks to stem the spread of coronavirus amid the second national lockdown, but Norfolk and Waveney were not among them.
However, Norfolk County Council has told the government it wants to pilot mass testing - and a company on its doorstep is poised and potentially ready to help, with MPs keen that it succeeds.
Scientists at Iceni Diagnostics, based at Norwich Research Park, are in talks with the government over the rapid response tests they have produced.And, pending further trials, they would be able to provide it for mass testing if needed - and backing is forthcoming.
Bosses at Norwich Research Park say that just £3m would allow production of the company’s test to be upscaled, to help with efforts to bring the disease in check.
The Iceni Diagnostics test differs from tests the government is using in places such as Liverpool.
It identifies the live virus, rather than the genetic material with traces of Covid-19 - which can be present when the person is no longer infectious.
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It can also show if somebody has normal flu, rather than Covid-19.
Dr Berwyn Clarke, chairman of Iceni Diagnostics, said: “We think that, potentially, we have the test which could be one of the best which can be used at the point of care. It tests if there is an infectious virus there.
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“And the critical thing is that these tests are able to be done then and there, they do not need to be sent back to labs for testing, which can lead to all sorts of problems with logistics.
“We are in conversation with the government already and they understand the power of the technology which we have, but there is a process which needs to be gone through and they will need to do their own tests on what we’ve developed.
“But, if that works, then we would be ready and we could get our tests into use.”
Dr Clarke said the company had to be cautious ahead of that final validation process, but said, if it was asked to carry out mass testing in Norfolk, it was “pretty much there”.
He said the company was also keen to talk to other businesses about using the tests.
David Parfrey, chief executive of Norwich Research Park, said: “Norwich Research Park is absolutely committed to the region it is part of. Therefore, we would want to contribute to the people of Norfolk being able to return to a more normal way of life and that would be one of our highest priorities.”
He said £3m of backing would enable the park to work with Iceni Diagnostics to upscale production of the test to provide mass testing in Norfolk and the UK and to export the tests abroad.
Mr Parfrey said: “We are poised, we are ready and we are highly motivated. We are anxious to be able to use our expertise to contribute wherever we possibly can.”
In July, a project 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 - showed how asymptomatic ‘silent spreaders’ could be spotted via weekly testing of staff and students.
Norfolk MPs have backed the work being done at the research park and said mass testing was an essential tool to control the spread of the virus.
And George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid-Norfolk, said, had central government handed more control to local areas to manage coronavirus, mass testing in the county could have been used to avoid a lockdown.
He said: “Iceni Diagnostics on the NRP is a world class company. If Norfolk councils were free to do testing and track and trace our way - The Norfolk Way - we could have done a deal with Iceni as a local company to access mass testing at cost, showcasing a great local technology business and avoiding a lockdown.
“That’s why I’ve been calling for more local leadership of Covid by our local councils.”
Jerome Mayhew, Conservative MP for Broadland, said he had been helping highlight the Iceni Diagnostics tests to health secretary Matt Hancock and minister for innovation Lord Bethell.
He said: “I think mass testing is a great idea and I think Iceni Diagnostics are a hugely respected organisation.”
Clive Lewis, Labour MP for Norwich South, said it was time the government better utilised the research park. He said: “We have got this hub of excellence on our doorstep and it’s not being properly utilised.”
He added he would be keen to see mass testing carried out in Norfolk, particularly given its vulnerable older population.
How do the tests work?
The test works by identifying glycans, the presence of which are required by viruses to infect a body.
However each virus accesses a different glycan, or employs a different method to obtain one, thus betraying its identity.
Dr Berwyn Clarke, chairman of Iceni Diagnostics said: “The test is a lateral flow test, so it looks a bit like a pregnancy test.
“On one end you put the sample - be it saliva, a nose swap or a throat swab - and potentially three lines will light up in red.
“The first line shows that the test has worked. The second line will show if it is a flu strain, the third will be if you have the coronavirus.”
The test will be able to tell users which - if any - virus they have tested positive for within 15 minutes of it being administered.
A positive result shows that live, active virus is present, giving a clear signal of current infection, whether the patient has started to show symptoms or not.
Call for region to get mass testing in future
Bosses at Norfolk County Council have asked the government to give the green light for a pilot of mass testing for coronavirus in the county.
Mass coronavirus testing will be rolled out across 66 more local authorities - but not yet in Norfolk and Suffolk, the government confirmed.
But a Norfolk County Council spokeswoman said the council was keen to take part in further roll-outs of the testing.
She said: “We have submitted an expression of interest to pilot mass testing in Norfolk and we are waiting to hear the outcome.”
And public health bosses also hope the region will get access to a number of tests each week - with more detail to be revealed later this week.
Stuart Keeble, director of Public Health Suffolk, said despite not being part of the initial mass testing scheme, the government had informed them Suffolk would get access to “a significant number of tests” each week.