Mass Periodic Testing for Covid-19

We have reported recently on both the United Kingdom’s attempts to meet their stated “100,000 tests per day by the end of April” target and the subsequent setting up of the “Independent SAGE” committee by Sir David King, which we initially dubbed the “Alternative SAGE” committee, or “Alt SAGE” for short.

The first Independent SAGE committee meeting will be broadcast on YouTube at 12:00 BST today. We cannot help but wonder if they will discuss the concept of “Mass Periodic Testing”, or MPT for short.

The idea was introduced by Professor Julian Peto from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in a letter to the British Medical Journal on March 22nd 2020. Here is an extract:

In Editor’s Choice of 19 March Godlee mentions the urgent need for increased capacity to test frontline healthcare workers serologically to verify their immunity to the covid-19 virus. Even more urgent is capacity for weekly viral detection in the whole UK population. This, together with intensive contact tracing, could enable the country to resume normal life immediately. The virus could only survive in those who are untested, and contact tracing would often lead to them. Within the tested population anyone infected would be detected within about a week (0 to 7 days plus sample transport and testing) of becoming infectious.

Prof. Peto’s suggestion involves testing the vast majority if the population of the UK for Covid-19 every week. His letter continues:

Centrally organised facilities with the capacity to test the entire UK population weekly (in 6 days at 10 million tests per day) can be made available much more quickly and cheaply than a vaccine, probably within weeks. This heroic but straightforward national effort would involve a crash programme to enlist all existing PCR (polymerase chain reaction) facilities, acquire or manufacture the PCR reagents, and agree protocols including a laptop program for barcode reading in smaller laboratories. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just authorised a test kit for detecting the Covid-19 virus that can be run on machines used in the NHS for HPV screening. Only laboratories that do PCR routinely would participate, subject to central quality control and at cost price. The Wellcome Sanger Institute, UK Biocentre, and smaller academic laboratories, together with all commercial facilities, should have enough machines or can get more immediately from the manufacturers. The 24-hour extra staffing to run their machines continuously would be bioscience students, graduates, and postgraduates familiar with PCR who already work in or near the laboratory. Processing capacity equivalent to 4000 Roche COBAS 8800 systems is needed, and the UK may already have both the machines and the trained staff in post or immediately available.

Roche cobas 8800 PCR testing system

As you may have noticed, such a “heroic effort” has not yet begun. We have not yet achieved a consistent 100,000 tests per day, let alone the 10 million tests per day envisaged by Julian Peto. Skipping to his conclusion:

By the time the first test is done there may be more than a million infected people who must be treated or remain quarantined at home or in care until all residents at the address test negative. That unavoidable crisis for the NHS would be ameliorated by earlier diagnosis and treatment, and hence reduced pressure on intensive care, and by having all staff as well as patients tested regularly. Contacts of positive people who test negative could choose continued home quarantine or, at little extra risk, choose to join a group of up to 10 test-negative contacts (usually with other family members). Subsequent weekly national testing, together with behavioural changes and efficient contact tracing, would find progressively fewer infections and might soon be extended to a month. This emergency system would only be needed for about 2 months but could be rapidly reintroduced to control any future epidemic caused by a new virus.

Five weeks have elapsed since the letter was published, and an avoidable crisis for the NHS is still ongoing. According to Boris Johnson’s Twitter feed over the weekend:

However according to today’s Daily Telegraph:

When today’s lunch time meeting has concluded will the Alt SAGE committee have recommended an “end [to] the absurd, dystopian and tyrannical lockdown”, mass periodic testing or some alternative “middle way”?

Watch this space!


Sir David King convenes Alt SAGE Covid-19 committee

Idly perusing the online version of The Sunday Times in anticipation of more BoJo bashing I instead stumbled across some discreet Dom bashing from an illustrious source. According to an article by Caroline Wheeler, Deputy Political Editor of the Sunday Times:

The government’s former chief scientific adviser is convening a rival panel of experts to offer advice on easing the lockdown.

Tomorrow Sir David King will chair the first meeting of the group, which is designed to act as an independent alternative to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

The move comes after weeks of unease about the transparency of SAGE decision-making. It has emerged that 16 of the 23 known members of the committee, which meets in secret, are employed by the government.

The independent group will broadcast live on YouTube and take evidence from global experts. It aims to present the government with “robust, unbiased advice” and some evidence-based policies to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

The committee will formally submit its recommendations to the health and social care select committee, heaping pressure on Boris Johnson as he draws up the government’s lockdown exit strategy.

The whole idea sounds crazy, until you consider how the official Covid-19 daily briefings are already spinning like crazy!

Sir David also has his very own Twitter feed, via which he announced:

Getting back to Caroline, she added:

Speaking before tomorrow’s meeting, which will be followed by a news conference, King said: “Science is fundamentally a system based on peer review. When it comes to scientific advice of any kind, transparency is essential.”

He added: “I am not at all critical of the scientists who are putting advice before the government . . . but because there is no transparency the government can say they are following scientific advice but we don’t know that they are.”

Dominic Cummings, a top aide to the prime minister, has attended the secret meetings of SAGE.

“Cummings is an adviser to the prime minister. And the chief scientific adviser is an adviser to the prime minister. So there are two voices from the scientific advisory group and I think that’s very dangerous because only one of the two understands the science,” King said.

The committee has a draft agenda and is seeking to end the pandemic “with the fewest casualties possible”.

Currently the YouTube URL at which tomorrow’s Alt SAGE meeting will be broadcast has not been revealed, so…..

[Edit – May 12th]

The Independent SAGE committee have just published their recommendations. We “retweeted” them forthwith!

To summarise the committee’s recommendations to Her Majesty’s Government concerning “Transitioning from lockdowns and closures”:

Four key components to managing transitions and modulating restrictive measures

  1. Public health and epidemiological considerations must drive the decision-making process.
  2. Available capacity for dual-track health system management to reinstate regular health services, while at the same time continuing to address COVID-19.
  3. Leveraging social and behavioural perspectives as tools for responsive engagement with populations.
  4. Social and economic support to mitigate the devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals, families and communities.

Six conditions should be used as the basis to implement/adapt transitioning of measures

  1. Evidence shows that COVID-19 transmission is controlled.
  2. Sufficient public health and health system capacities are in place to identify, isolate, test and treat all cases, and to trace and quarantine contacts.
  3. Outbreak risks are minimized in high vulnerability settings, such as long-term care facilities (i.e. nursing homes, rehabilitative and mental health centres) and congregate settings.
  4. Preventive measures are established in workplaces, with physical distancing, handwashing facilities and respiratory etiquette in place, and potentially thermal monitoring.
  5. Manage the risk of exporting and importing cases from communities with high-risks of transmission.
  6. Communities have a voice, are informed, engaged and participatory in the transition.

Four cross-cutting mechanisms that are essential enablers throughout the transition process

  1. Governance of health systems.
  2. Data analytics to inform decisions.
  3. Digital technologies to support public health measures.
  4. Responsive communication with populations.

We “tweeted” a question to the powers that be:

We haven’t received an answer as yet.

Watch this space!