A super-lab for coronavirus testing has finally opened in Milton Keynes after ministers admitted they had no idea when it would be operational.
The National Biosample Centre has been shrouded in mystery for weeks and was discreetly opened last night by Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
There was skepticism the facility would get going in time to meet Number 10’s ambitious plan to test 100,000 people a day
Despite officially operating for less than 24 hours, officials claim the Milton Keynes lab is ‘already able to test thousands of patient samples each day’.
Mr Hancock emphasised the opening as a key point in British history as the Government grapples with the pandemic at hand.
At today’s press briefing, he said that two more ‘Lighthouse mega-labs’ in Cheshire and Glasgow were already open – despite not being officially launched.
The National Biosample Centre for coronavirus testing has finally opened in Milton Keynes after ministers admitted they had no idea when it would be operational
There was skepticism the super-lab would ever get going because the Government refused to comment on plans. The warehouse is pictured
Matt Hancock confirmed he had opened the testing lab in today’s briefing
Suspicions The National Biosample Centre had been earmarked as a COVID-19 testing lab rose in mid-March.
Locals in Tilbrook, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, had noticed an abnormal level of activity taking place at the building, which is tucked away in a quiet industrial site between Browns Woods and Caldecote.
But Department of Health officials refused to comment on what was happening. Plans seemed to be veiled in secrecy amid ongoing criticism of the Government for failing to scale up testing with speed.
Last week sources claimed no testing has actually taken place, even though Mr Hancock claimed the facility had opened on March 24.
Mr Hancock quietly visited the building on Thursday to formally launch it
At the daily press briefing, Mr Hancock said: ‘On testing, we are ramping up, those will come online very soon.
‘In fact, our new testing facility in Milton Keynes opens today and we are therefore on the ramp up of the testing numbers.’
To add further confusion, government ministers admitted on April 2 they still did not know when it would be ‘fully operational’.
Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government contradicted what Mr Hancock said on Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I don’t know precisely when that’s going to be coming on board but obviously everything is coming as quickly as it possibly can.’
Now it can be revealed Mr Hancock quietly visited the building on Thursday before the Cobra meeting to formally launch it.
Matt Hancock said last night: ‘We have set the challenge of achieving a 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month.
‘A stream of new testing and diagnostic facilities are being brought online, and the opening of the first of our new Lighthouse Labs is an historic moment.’
The opening of Milton Keynes lab for the purpose of coronavirus testing was a ‘crucial step’ taken in tackling this virus, Mr Hancock said.
Built for £24million in 2015, the facility is the largest in the UK for storing and processing swabs. It has capacity to store more than 20million samples at temperatures as low as -196C.
Officials say swab samples will be sent in from all over the country by Royal Mail and Amazon.
MASS TESTING IS NEEDED TO GET OUT OF LOCKDOWN
The UK’s lockdown could rumble on for months because the country has no idea how many people are truly infected with the coronavirus and none of the tools to end the outbreak, experts say.
Scientists in Britain say it won’t be safe for the UK to emerge from its current state until it can be sure labs are able to test people en masse to use antibody tests to work out how many people have had the infection already, or a vaccine or treatment can be developed.
Scientists and experts widely believe large-scale reliable testing for the coronavirus will be key for getting Britain out of its lockdown.
Around 65,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since the outbreak began but tests are only being done on hospital patients and NHS staff.
Around 15,000 tests are carried out each day to reveal who was infected at the time they were tested.
A huge roll-out of testing spots people who are ill and might spread the disease, so they can be isolated to protect the people around them.
Society won’t be safe from the virus unless officials are fast to catch and isolate all cases or local outbreaks, or to build up a clear idea of what proportion of people are immune because they’ve had it already.
Asked whether the UK could come out of lockdown without rapid mass-testing available, Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘We can but whether it would be wise to do it would be another question.’
Public Health England has yet to find or create an antibody test it finds acceptable, the country is testing fewer than 15,000 people per day compared to more than 70,000 in Germany, and vaccines are months away.
Trying to move forward without being led by testing would, in the words of the chief of the World Health Organization, be like trying to ‘fight a fire blindfolded’.
Officials have diagnosed just 65,000 people with the coronavirus in the UK but believe up to 10 per cent of the population – 6.6million people – could have had the illness already.
Scientific estimates vary wildly, with Imperial College experts suggesting 1.98million may have been infected already while Oxford experts say it could be as many as 33million. Without a clearer picture it will be difficult to progress.
By Sam Blanchard
The labs are part of the Governments plan to ‘dramatically increase the number of coronavirus tests that can take place each day’.
According to a Government spokesperson the will help process ‘tens of thousands of tests’ in the coming weeks and is ‘already able to test thousands of patient samples each day’.
But despite the government’s boast, vacancies for ‘experienced laboratory staff’ to work at the Milton Keynes site were still circulating on April 2.
The Microbiology Society sent an urgent appeal to its members on behalf of the Government, asking for specialists to work at the Milton Keynes site.
It suggested staff shortages were the reason for the faltered start of the laboratory, but the DHSC refused to reveal how many lab technicians and other staff had been employed.
Insiders told MailOnline that the government has not been able to recruit enough lab technicians who have expertise in operating PCR machines, that are able to locate the coronavirus gene and establish if somebody is infected or not.
One scientific researcher who did not want to be named, told MailOnline: ‘There are some fantastic, experienced laboratory staff all over the country, but the government wants most of the testing done centrally in Milton Keynes and two other locations and this is causing the problem.
‘From what I’ve been told, no testing at all has taken place at Milton Keynes. It can take two weeks to train somebody to operate a PCR machine, but this is time that the country doesn’t have. They need to get the site fully operational as quickly as possible but that’s not happening and it’s costing people their lives.’
Currently almost 20,000 tests are being processed a day. This needs to reach 100,000 by the end of April to meet Mr Hancock’s goal.
The ‘Lighthouse Labs’ have taken their name from the PCR testing technology, which uses fluorescent light to detect the virus.
Mr Hancock said today two further Lighthouse Labs have been opened in Alderley Park and Glasgow to add further capacity to test swabs for the virus.
A fourth lab at Cambridge University’s Anne McLaren Laboratory aims to process 30,000 tests per day, which would go a long way to meeting the Government’s 100,000 a day April target.
But it won’t be ‘fully up and running’ until May, the university’s Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.
A Government spokesman said: ‘The site in Milton Keynes is the first of three mega-labs that will be integrated into the new national testing infrastructure.
‘The platform will automate the country’s collection of patient samples, supported by world-class, cross-sector British logistics experts, supported by military planners.’
There have now been a total of 65,077 positive results in the UK. Today was the largest jump in coronavirus deaths. A further 953 people have died, bringing the total to 8,931.
Currently only people seriously ill in hospital are able to access a coronavirus test, leaving the full scale of the UK epidemic unknown.
Efforts to get the thousands of NHS frontline workers are underway but a small minority have been able to access a test.
The Government spokesperson said: ’The testing of NHS staff and their families currently in isolation will continue to be prioritised, allowing those testing negative, or with family members who test negative, to return to work.’
Since rollout began on March 24, there are now 13 drive-through sites for NHS frontline staff and their families in operation across the UK, helping to provide the labs with patient samples.
Lighthouse Labs have been constructed through a partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care, Medicines Discovery Catapult, UK Biocentre and the University of Glasgow.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.
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