People in the UK are turning to mail-order coronavirus tests as the government scrambles to offer mass public testing and get a hold on the virus’ spread across the country.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, recently returning to public life after testing positive for coronavirus, announced Thursday the UK would aim to test 100,000 Britons a day by the end of April. Critics of the government’s stark U-turn on testing suggest it may have been spurred by about 8% of National Health Service (NHS) staff being off work because of Covid-19-related issues.
But at the moment, these government-funded tests by hospitals are unavailable to most people and are still reserved for those with severe symptoms and some health care workers.
In a tiny, airless office in Old Street in east London, the business Rightangled is offering a solution — at a price. The DNA testing firm is here hurriedly repurposing its DNA health testing kits to be mailed to customers for about £200 ($250) each. The coronavirus testing service sounds like a dream solution.
The kits arrive in the mail, you follow the video to take a swab from your throat, and send the sample back in a biohazard bag. The results come back around three days later.
But the price tag, unaffordable to many, is just one drawback.
CEO Abdullah Sabyah said he had thousands of orders in just a week, and is offering half-price discounts for staff in the UK’s free health care service, the NHS. But even at a reduced price of £100 ($122) the tests do not provide a broad solution to the UK’s testing crisis.
The UK’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, had said in mid-March that public “testing will be based on symptoms and severity” as the broad spread of the disease meant “it is no longer needed for us to identity every case.” Yet Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s insistence last week that testing is “so, so important” means the UK is racing to make testing as widespread as possible just at the time when it is expected to reach its peak of infections.
Services like Rightangled have stepped into the gap. Yet some critics question whether they are benefiting their bottom line and the rich, and taking capacity away from a stretched testing industry that should now be focused on ensuring frontline health care workers are fit to go to work.
CEO Abdullah Sabyah said they had to set the price carefully “at a point in which we could afford the costs of the service [and] that would enable us to also offer discounts to people, as well as … bulk orders.”
He declined to name the laboratory that Rightangled uses to conduct tests, citing commercial confidentiality, but said the laboratory was government-approved. The downside of the home-testing industry for coronavirus in the UK is that it is so new, the government has not granted regulatory approval for it.
A spokesman for the UK’s government Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, Neil Williams, told CNN: “There are no tests for sale to the general public from a pharmacist or to order at home that have authorization at the moment.”
A spokesman for Public Health England, also part of the UK Department of Health, added: “We don’t have confidence in their reliability.” UK health officials have repeatedly said that a bad test is worse than no test, as false negatives leave infectious people thinking they are not.
Yet the apparent demand for Rightangled’s tests betrays the lack of regulated supply at a time of unprecedented crisis. Asked what he would say to convince someone he was a good Samaritan rather than looking to make a profit in a crisis, Sabyah said: “We are simply offering a service at a very reduced price from what other providers are doing.”
The approved, laboratory-based options are scarce and limited by cost and the need for accuracy. The NHS says it is moving as fast as it can to get laboratory tests that meet a standard of 99% accuracy. One heavily publicized and sought-after option is the Samba II test in Cambridge, being rapidly developed in a science park on the edges of the university town.
The company that makes the Samba II says it can test someone in 90 minutes for $38.
Named after the dance, Samba II was kick-started by a $3 million donation from a wealthy benefactor and the company says it produces dozens of the $24,000 machines that can test someone in 90 minutes for $38. The company says it has many orders from NHS hospitals, but it is a huge challenge to mass-produce the machines and guarantee the accuracy.
It’s not about money, said its inventor Helen Lee, the chair and CEO of Diagnostics for the Real World. The challenge is to get the raw materials and make these machines fast enough, so exhausted UK health care workers can go to work and be sure they do not have the disease.
Lee said: “We have a saying: ‘You can give me a billion dollars, but I couldn’t make a ton of rice right now.’ It is a matter of having the sufficient capital and getting the supply chain. And the whole world is limited by the supply chain.” She said government bids to reassure the world with universal testing were impractical, likening it to a “worldwide tsunami and you don’t have a life jacket for the whole world.”
Yet the need for testing is something governments increasingly cling to as lockdowns damage their economies and disorientate their citizens. Science and business need to balance profit and accuracy to try to keep up.