A Californian firm backed by private equity has won deals with No10 to supply more than a billion coronavirus tests ahead of the mass twice-a-week testing drive.
Innova Medical Group has raked in £2.8billion from British taxpayers in controversial deals for lateral flow tests that give results within 30 minutes.
It was officially founded last March by Pasaca Capital, chaired by Chinese businessman Charles Huang who was born in Wuhan – the city at the epicentre of the pandemic.
Innova’s ‘primary’ factory for making coronavirus swabs is in Xiamen in Fujian. It also has three production facilities in the US, and is planning to expand to the UK.
The pharmaceutical’s swabs will inevitably used as part of Boris Johnson’s pledge to offer every adult in Britain two tests a week from Friday.
But ministers are also hoping to start receiving swabs from UK companies – Omega Diagnostics and Global Access Diagnostics – as soon as their kits get the green light from the medical regulator. They will only be able to supply four million tests a week by the end of next month, compared to Innova’s 15million a day.
Scientists held up lateral flow tests as a way out of the pandemic because they could spot asymptomatic cases, helping to limit the spread of the virus.
But some experts have raised concerns that thousands could be wrongly labelled as having Covid by getting ‘false positives’ because studies have shown the kits are less accurate than gold-standard PCR swabs.
The Government has been accused of ‘cronyism’ in the way it handed out contracts at the start of the pandemic, amid a desperate scramble for PPE. But ministers insist they have nothing to hide and were working hard to get the necessary equipment to the country in record time.
Innova Medical Group is owned by private equity firm Pasaca Capital Inc, that was set up by Chinese millionaire from Wuhan Charles Huang (pictured). The British taxpayer has already paid £2.8billion to Innova for lateral flow tests
Boris Johnson is planning to get every adult in the UK to test themselves for the virus twice a week, as more parts of society begin to open up
SCIENTISTS URGE GOVERNMENT TO STOP USING INNOVA TEST
Scientists have accused the Government of misleading the public over the accuracy of Innova’s rapid test and called for its use to be stopped.
Professor Jon Deeks, Dr Angela Raffle and Dr Mike Gill – from the University of Birmingham, the University of Bristol and a former regional director of public health, respectively – said in a letter published in January: ‘The Innova lateral flow test is not fit for many of the purposes being proposed by the government.
‘In the Liverpool pilot, the test missed infection in 60 per cent of people, and of greatest concern missed it in 30 per cent of those with very high viral loads who are at highest risk of spreading the virus to others.
‘An erroneous test result may lead to people taking the wrong actions and putting themselves and others at risk of infection. This may increase and not reduce disease spread, illness and death.’
They said the limitations of the test were not being made clear by the Department of Health and that it was being made out to be more accurate than it is, in some places being compared to the significantly more reliable PCR tests.
Lateral flow tests do have some benefits, they argued, but the way this was being used risked too many people getting false negative results or not reporting results when they were positive.
The researchers urged in their letter: ‘Stop further rollout of rapid asymptomatic testing using the Innova LFD, including its use in care homes, schools, communities and self-testing by untrained people at home.’
A similar, but not identical comment, is available on the British Medical Journal blog.
Innova supplied as many as 500million lateral flow tests to Britain last year for £2billion – or £4 a test, according to the company’s website.
Government contracts show it was paid another £800million this year to secure an undisclosed number of tests.
In an interview with the Sunday Times last month, Innova’s chief executive Daniel Elliot said the firm was expecting to have supplied a billion tests to Britain, their biggest customer, by mid-April.
‘The way to put it, in terms of scale, is we ship a Boeing 777 cargo jet every single day to the UK,’ the chief executive told the Guardian last month.
He added UK authorities were ‘very surprised’ when they found out quite how many swabbing kits the company could supply.
‘I think that was the “Aha!” moment for them, because they were tasked with what felt like an impossible task,’ he said.
‘We had multiple calls within a 24-hour period. They kept asking, “can you really do this?”‘
Innova’s route to winning multi-million pound deals to supply Britain with Covid tests came through a Northamptonshire businessman, the Mail revealed last November.
Kim Thonger, 61, of Wellingborough, is the UK distributor of Innova’s tests, along with his 52-year-old co-director Charles Palmer, who he took on last summer.
Mr Thonger, who has no previous healthcare background and once worked for DKNY shoes and Dr Marten’s, agreed to help Mr Elliott negotiate the bureaucracy and trials it had to go through to win its Government deal, it was claimed.
Both he and Mr Palmer get ‘a few pence’ for every test sold.
The Innova lateral flow test was approved for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) following examination at labs in Porton Down.
It was found to be only 79 per cent accurate at rooting out positive cases on average when the test was given by lab scientists.
This dropped to 73 per cent accurate when used by doctors and nurses, and barely 60 per cent accurate when people tested themselves.
Innova did not dispute these results, but said appropriate training in how to administer the tests improved their performance.
The SD Biosensor and Healgen Covid tests have also been approved for use in the UK, although the companies are not yet supplying swabs for the mass testing regime.
The Prime Minister and Health Secretary announced a huge expansion in testing today with free rapid kits made available to everyone in England from this Friday.
But concerns were immediately raised as when used on that scale the tests could wrongly label tens of thousands of people a week as having Covid.
Tories also pointed out that vaccines have been billed as the key to returning to normal, saying it was another example of ministers ‘moving the goalposts’.
Allyson Pollock, professor of public health at Newcastle University, told the BBC that mass testing was a ‘scandalous waste of money’.
‘When the prevalence rate of coronavirus falls as low as it is at the moment then an increasing proportion of cases are likely to be false positives meaning that cases and contacts will self isolate unnecessarily.’
Professor Pollock added that mass testing was ‘going to do more harm than good’, complained about a lack of evidence from the government.
Former minister Steve Baker said that the false positives generated by tens of millions of additional tests could be enough to knock the Government’s roadmap off course.
Mr Baker, deputy chairman of the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of MPs, said: ‘It is now obvious that in an environment of low prevalence, mass asymptomatic testing makes false positives a real issue.’