Boris Johnson‘s extortionate Operation Moonshot mass-swabbing project is destined to ‘fail miserably’ and could accelerate Covid-19’s spread, top experts warned today.
The £100billion scheme, championed by the Prime Minister’s outgoing chief aide Dominic Cummings, is designed to reopen swathes of the economy by swabbing millions of asymptomatic people every day for coronavirus.
But a panel of scientists claim it will divert essential funding away from the already-overstretched NHS and Britain’s beleaguered contact tracing scheme, which ‘needs urgent improvement’.
Moonshot relies on rapid tests that give a result in minutes but miss between 25 and 50 per cent of coronavirus cases – which could give people false confidence to mingle with vulnerable people and spread the disease further.
Experts from universities in Newcastle, Birmingham, Warwick and Bristol sounded the alarm about the dangers of the project today as Number 10 pushes on with pilots of the scheme in 66 local authorities.
They described it as the ‘most unethical use of public funds for screening’ they’ve ever seen and claimed it had the potential to ‘actually do a lot of harm’.
The panel said it was telling that population screening for Covid-19 has not been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Ministers have bought millions of £5 rapid coronavirus testing kits, which are made by US company Innova (shown) and give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ result in a quarter of an hour
At a virtual press conference today, Professor Allyson Pollock, clinical professor of public health at the University of Newcastle, said: ‘The evidence for screening is not there.
‘The evidence around the tests is poor and weak at the moment, and needs to be improved.
‘We’re arguing the moonshot programme really should be paused, until the cost effectiveness and the value for money of any of these programmes is well established.’
She called for the operation to be scrapped and the funds to be invested into NHS Test and Trace, which is failing to find four in 10 close contacts of Covid-19 patients.
Professor Pollock added: ‘I’m worried about ramping up test and trace without fixing it first.
‘Absolutely no chance’ No10’s 200million new 15-minute Covid tests will get us back to normal life
There’s ‘absolutely no chance’ the Government’s new 15-minute coronavirus tests are accurate enough to get life back to normal, a leading expert has warned.
It emerged ministers are set to buy up to 200million of the £5 kits, which are made by US company Innova and give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ result in a quarter of an hour.
They have been heralded as a key to unlocking the economy when the second lockdown ends, allowing people with a negative result to visit the theatre, cinema or a sports event.
But Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician from the University of Birmingham, warned they could be ‘dangerous’ if Brits who test negative see it as a green light to visit elderly grandparents.
Trials of the devices by Public Health England and Oxford University found they could detect up to three in four positive cases.
But, after poring over the data, Professor Deeks said they could actually miss half of all infections when they are used in real world scenarios rather than in hospitals by a trained nurse – a finding he described as ‘worrying’.
Professor Deeks, who is also head of the Biostatistics, Evidence Synthesis and Test Evaluation Research Group at the university, said on Twitter: ‘Between one in two and one in four current cases of Covid-19 will be missed. Other tests are better.
‘Those getting negative results need to know Covid risk is reduced, but they could still have Covid, and get Covid tomorrow or next week. Harmful for them to think they are Covid-free – especially if they now cuddle their granny.
‘How on earth can we get to a safe ‘test-and-release’ strategy with a test which can miss up to one in two cases? IMHO [In my humble opinion] ABSOLUTELY NO CHANCE!’
‘Government has already spent £12bn, and Operation Moonshot would be 70 per cent of the NHS’ entire annual budget. We need to get contact tracing working.
‘The other harms of potential screening is that it diverts money away from people who need it most.
‘Health service capacity was severely reduced before Covid and that needs to be rebuilt. This £100bn could be much better spent.
‘[Population-wide] screening ought to be paused and thought about properly while testing and contact tracing is improved.’
Dr Angela Raffle, consultant in public health and honorary senior lecturer at the University of Bristol, said: ‘When I learned of the Moonshot proposals this seemed to me to be the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen.’
She highlighted several problems, including the short period of time in which people need to be tested, that the planning and infrastructure is not in place, the cost and that the proposals have not been scrutinised by screening experts.
‘It worries me that ministers or whoever can wake up one morning saying, “let’s spend £100 billion on this” and not have it scrutinised,’ she said.
‘It would be like building a Channel Tunnel without asking civil engineers to look at the plans.
‘Even if it could work the way we’re going about it is destined to make sure it will fail miserably.’
She added the proposals could also lead to a ‘chaotic scramble to have tests, which we don’t know will bring any benefit’.
Dr Raffle is a consultant to the UK National Screening Programmes at Public Health England which advises ministers and the NHS about all aspects of population screening for all conditions.
She claimed the body was not consulted about the project and when it offered to help, it was told ‘no thank you’ by Government.
The first trial of city-wide testing is under way in Liverpool, where its 500,000 residents are being offered regular tests, regardless of whether they have symptoms.
Hundreds of thousands of tests have now been issued to parts of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, the West Midlands and several London boroughs, as part of the drive to root out asymptomatic cases.
The pilots are using ‘lateral flow’ tests made by US company Innova which give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ result in a quarter of an hour.
But data from the Government’s own trials of the £5 kits found they can miss half of all infections when used in real world scenarios rather than in hospitals by a trained nurse.
Professor Jon Deeks, a biostatistician from the University of Birmingham, warned they could be ‘dangerous’ if Brits who test negative see it as a green light to visit elderly grandparents.
He said Number 10 had carried out 13 studies evaluating the Innova tests but warned they ‘don’t tell us how well tests will work in practice’.
This is because most of the trials were done in a lab, with trained medical staff administering the tests.
And 11 out of the 13 tests did not compare the lateral flow results with more accurate PCR tests to check the rapid devices got the correct result, according to Professor Deeks.
Of the two trials that did compare the tests, one saw a trained nurse give the test to hospitalised Covid-19 patients and the other was done by an untrained volunteer at a PHE testing centre who followed written instructions.
The latter study was meant to give an indication of how accurate the tests would be if administered by a soldier – which is currently being done in the pilot in Liverpool.
When the tests were carried out by a nurse, the test caught on average 73 per cent of people infected with Covid-19. But at the testing centre, it was just 58 per cent accurate.
There are plans in place for university students to take one of the tests before the end of term so they can return home to spend Christmas with their parents.
But Professor Deeks said, because of the false negatives: ‘It certainly isn’t a suitable way to make sure we have a safe Christmas and could actually do a lot of harm.
‘You still have to think you’ve potentially got it. So it’s not going to rule out the fact that they’re taking Covid back home – it will reduce it, but it doesn’t stop it.’
He added: ‘The arguments that we’re hearing, and these have been said by the Prime Minister, that this test can tell the difference between infectious and non-infectious is not substantiated by any data. There is no data out there to show this.’
The Innova kits are what is known as lateral flow tests. They work ultimately the same way as the gold-standard PCR tests, amplifying genetic material then looking for signs of the virus.
Lateral flow uses a different type of enzyme which allows the test to be done at one temperature, which makes it faster but less accurate.
PCR uses another type of enzyme and the process has to be repeated at different temperatures in a laboratory, which means it takes longer but is more accurate.
Despite growing concerns, Number 10 is pressing on with Operation Moonshot, announcing last night plans for two new ‘megalabs’ that by the end of the year
Latest data on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard shows testing capacity on Sunday was at an estimated 519,951 – with 379,955 tests actually processed.
This increased capacity will mean faster turnaround times for results, according to Department of Health officials, while each facility will have a workforce of up to 2,000 people once fully staffed.
As well as processing Covid-19 tests, these new diagnostic facilities will be used for critical illness including cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
A recruitment drive has already begun for the Leamington Spa lab and a campaign is due to start shortly in Scotland, the Government said.