A US firm has said it is on track to provide the UK with 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of the month, giving renewed hope that the government could hit its target.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said last week he wanted to increase testing to 100,000 per day by the end of April. On Wednesday 19,500 were tested, up from 10,200 on that day the previous week.
Mark Stevenson, the chief operating officer at Thermo Fisher Scientific, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the target was possible. “We began mobilising actually straight away after we learned about the Covid-19 outbreak and we designed the kit to identify the virus’s unique genetic code,” he said.
“Then we worked in a way to test that, validate that in patients. And then we began to scale up our manufacturing to meet demand. We agreed with the UK that we would supply to meet their demand of more than 100,000 tests per day.”
The company will initially produce antigen tests, which determine whether someone currently has the virus, rather than antibody tests that reveal if someone has previously had it and may, therefore, be immune.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has blamed the UK’s delay in ramping up the rates of testing – widely seen as an important way to manage the coronavirus outbreak – on shortages of the chemical reagents needed, though the Chemical Industries Association later said it was unaware of this.
Experts have said the UK should not end the lockdown without developing a clear strategy for stamping out the virus through mass testing.
Stevenson said Thermo Fisher Scientific had all the elements required to produce tests and it was not affected by any global shortage of reagents. “We manufacture the whole sophisticated supply chain so the tests, the reagents, the instruments,” he said.
“This is actually our expertise, so we’re bringing both the reagents, the chemicals and also our scientific expertise to help the UK. The challenge has really been making sure we have the lab capacity built up.
“And so that’s what the UK government has been building out, these three new centres and hubs. But we have the capacity to supply those labs with the necessary reagents, and tests for those kits.”
Stevenson said the kits were currently produced outside the UK, but the firm had agreed to use its UK bases to manufacture them for local supply. “Here in the UK we have about 5,000 employees and about 26 sites, so we already have a very large presence,” he said.
Amazon is involved in moving the test kits from the firm’s bases to UK testing centres, he said. Tests are carried out at these centres and then sent to one of three major hubs that have been set up for processing.
The company is also looking at antibody tests. Boris Johnson has previously described such tests as a potential “game changer”, as people who have recovered from the virus are thought to be largely immune, meaning they could go back to work.
“We are looking at how to develop an antibody test, as you know the science is quite hard there,” said Stevenson. “But we do think over time there will be good antibodies available and that will be part of the expansion beyond what we’re doing at the moment.”