Dunkirk involved the rescue of British soldiers from French beaches by a flotilla of "little ships" — pleasure boats and fishing vessels — during the Second World War. Now the UK's "little labs" are being asked to come to the rescue of front-line health workers by helping to massively ramp up the country's ability to test for Covid-19.
The Covid-19 Volunteer Testing Network was launched by Mike Fischer, the veteran entrepreneur who cofounded Research Machines, an educational computer and software company, and is in addition to the government's efforts to ramp up testing from current levels of around 10,000 a day to 25,000 by mid-April.
We are probably breaking some rules. Someone may sue me. I don't really care.
"I've worked with the government before and know how slow it can be," says Fischer, who is putting £1m initial funding in to get the project going. "We can get this up and running within days. We are probably breaking some rules. Someone may sue me. I don't really care."
Fischer is asking for all any lab in the UK with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine — the bit of kit that locates a particular coronavirus gene sequence and creates multiple copies that can then be easily detected — to consider getting involved. These machines, which typically cost less than £1,000, are common across testing labs. Every biology department in a university will have dozens. The Wellcome Sanger Institute's genome project will have thousands.
"All you need is a PCR machine, a level two or higher containment facility and two or three people who know what they are doing," says Fischer.
The project began with Fischer's own non-profit medical research lab SBL in Oxfordshire, which started to provide Covid-19 testing for local doctors' surgeries, helping them ensure that the medical staff were not themselves carriers of the virus when treating patients. It's now covering 18 surgeries and performing 400 tests a week, with plans to increase to 1,000.
If we could get 100 labs doing what we do, that would be 100,000 tests a week... It's the Dunkirk approach.
"There is nothing really special about our little lab, so if we can do it there will be hundreds of others that can," says Fischer. "If we could get 100 labs doing what we do, that would be 100,000 tests a week... It's the Dunkirk approach,"
Fischer says the Volunteer Testing Network team will help labs get hold of the materials they need — such as coronavirus samples, swabs and extraction kits — and deal with any administrative obstacles. Two other entrepreneurs — Caroline Plumb, founder and chief executive of Fluidly and Tim Perkin, cofounder of Grofar — are coordinating efforts to set up and run this.
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Fischer stresses that the network will not compete with any equipment that the government wants to use. The centralised testing centres will have first pick of any PCR machines they want to use, but, Fischer says "there is a long tail of machines that they will not want and we can use those for these tests".
While the tests will, in the first instance, be for frontline medical staff, a network of testing facilities like this will be needed for the UK to eventually end the lockdown and allow people to resume normal daily activities. South Korea has managed to contain the spread of the virus — without a lockdown — through use of a rapid and extensive testing programme.
Julian Peto, statistician and epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, wrote in the Financial Times yesterday that lockdown could end in the UK if the whole population was tested weekly — around 10m tests a day. That is 100x the government's eventual target for testing, but may be possible, Peto argues, if every PCR machine in the country was diverted to 24-hour-a-day testing.
Such a testing programme would eventually be as good as, or better, than the South Korean system, writes Peto, and would help save lives and allow the country to restart more normal economic activity.
Fischer became interested in biotechnology after his late wife was diagnosed with cancer, and built his own lab after stepping down from running Research Machines.
"Sensible entrepreneurs have a yacht. I have a lab," he says. "It is much more rewarding."
Any labs that would like to get involved can sign up here: https://www.covid19-testing.org/.