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Imperial scientists lead Covid-19 community-testing programme

Initiative aims to establish disease prevalence, as government is set to miss its testing target

Imperial College London is leading a new nationwide testing initiative to track the spread of coronavirus.

The move comes as a government minister admitted for the first time that the official target of 100,000 daily tests by the end of April set by health secretary Matt Hancock is unlikely to be reached.

Robert Buckland, the justice secretary, told Sky News on 30 April it was now “probable that we won’t” reach the target by today even as Hancock has insisted all along his target would be reached.

The new programme, commissioned by the Department for Health and Social Care, will be led by a team of Imperial scientists, clinicians and researchers, alongside colleagues at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Ipsos Mori.

It aims to improve understanding of how many people are currently infected with the virus, and potentially how many have been infected and have since recovered.

Scientists will select 100,000 people at random from 315 local authorities across England to provide nose and throat swabs to determine whether they are infected with the virus.

The programme will also assess accuracy of a number of antibody tests, and examine whether people can use them at home without assistance, before rolling them out to a further 100,000 people.

“Short of a vaccine, testing is the only way out of lockdown,” said Ara Darzi, director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation and the sponsor of the programme at Imperial. “With this ambitious programme, the biggest in England, we aim to establish a viable testing programme on which the government can rely.”

The project is expected to reveal the true prevalence of the disease and whether immunity develops after infection. “This knowledge will be vital for modellers seeking to understand the detail of the pandemic and to the design of strategies to ease lockdown,” said Colin Butter, associate professor at the University of Lincoln.

Joshua Moon, research fellow at the University of Sussex, said the project is “sensible” and “will tell us about the applicability of home-administered antibody tests”.

“The better we can understand these tests, the better our use of them for testing, tracing, and isolating will be, meaning a much safer return to pre-lockdown conditions.”