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Bring in academia and industry on Covid testing, say medics

Medical scientists say UK’s ‘fragmented and underdeveloped’ diagnostic sector needs better coordination

The “vital” expertise of academia and industry has been “underutilised in the UK’s diagnostic testing response to Covid-19, according to an Academy of Medical Sciences report.

The 11 November report is based on a virtual roundtable discussion of 23 leading experts from both the public and private sector, who anticipate that testing capacity will need to be significantly expanded to cope with increasing demands over the winter months.

“At the beginning of the UK Covid-19 epidemic, important decisions around testing were necessarily made at speed,” said John Tooke, former president of the academy and chair of the virtual meeting that took place in October.

“Inevitably, there were things that, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been done better and which we must address to cope with subsequent waves or future pandemics.”

Tooke and colleagues suggest involving partners from across the NHS, academia and industry in the development of testing strategies, with “greater transparency and timely communication” of decisions.

“This would provide clarity on the engagement opportunities for academia and industry, and guide how they can most effectively contribute,” the experts suggest, adding that the UK should also learn from the “successful and less successful strategies that have been implemented overseas”.

To support the UK’s testing efforts, the experts call for local and community-based diagnostics to be put to use.

“This will include utilising simpler logistics for sample transport and accessibility, as well as approaches for more localised decision-making and interventions in response to local outbreaks,” they said.

Other recommendations include exploring more innovative ways of testing for the virus by pooling multiple samples for testing, and adopting a more flexible approach to regulation so that as many laboratories as possible can contribute to the national testing effort.

In addition, they suggest, laboratories should be provided with longer-term funding and contracts “so that they can secure the required resources and workforce to provide the services needed”.

“We must continue to build on the collaborations between industry, academia and the NHS to take full advantage of all the talent and capabilities we possess,” said Tooke. “Despite its importance and many notable strengths, the UK diagnostic sector is fragmented and underdeveloped. Now is the time to invest in our UK diagnostic services and build a system that can cope with the pandemic and whatever future health challenges we may face.”