Rapid tests to find asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19 are to be launched in England this week. The aim of the program is to identify some of the tens of thousands of infected people who are unintentionally spreading the virus across the country.
The dramatic escalation of the program – which uses detectors known as lateral flow devices – comes as Covid death rates have continued to skyrocket and hospitals have reported alarming numbers of patients in need of care intensive.
On Saturday, it was revealed that 1,035 more Covid deaths had occurred in the UK, bringing the country’s total to 80,868. In addition, the daily number of people testing positive increased by 59,937.
As part of the new expanded testing program, local authorities will be encouraged to identify more positive cases of Covid and ensure those who are infected isolate themselves. The use of lateral flow devices, which can confirm whether a person is infected in less than 30 minutes, will allow rapid detection of infected individuals at testing centers.
Lateral flow devices are accurate at locating infected individuals, but have been criticized for generating a large number of false negatives. Nevertheless, many experts welcomed the extension of the testing program, which 131 local authorities have already agreed to implement. Professor Adam Finn, University of Bristol, described the expanded program as a measure of vital importance. “Added to the measures already in place, this constitutes an important new tool to help reduce the rapid increase in crippling cases in our country,” he added.
Professor Lawrence Young of Warwick Medical School agreed. ” It’s good news. Testing individuals during the current lockdown will help limit the spread of infection as long as we make sure people who test positive isolate themselves appropriately and their contacts are traced and also isolated. “
Other scientists were more careful. “Here in Liverpool, a trial using lateral flow testing had a good take: 25% of the population has been tested and 900 cases identified,” said Tom Wingfield, of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. “However, an interim report later showed that these tests missed 60% of cases and provided no clear evidence that the strategy led to a reduction in cases.
In addition, the strategy appears to have been implemented without any public consultation to discuss its potential benefits and pitfalls, which is relevant given the considerable expense of the program.
Other analysts noted that Liverpool’s experience also indicated that only people who could afford to self-isolate tended to show up for testing. Those who could not afford to isolate themselves or take time off from work – such as the self-employed – were more likely to avoid it. Support will therefore be high in wealthy areas but not in the poorest areas.