Massive Covid-19 testing lab opens to detect new variants

The UK’s largest lab for testing Covid-19 samples has opened in Warwickshire to boost the country’s capabilities in responding to new variants of concern and future disease threats.

The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in Royal Leamington Spa is expected to create around 1,500 skilled jobs for the area and will be capable of processing hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 samples every day. More than 300 are already employed at the lab with another 700 joining in the near future.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it has equipped the lab with cutting-edge technology to process even more tests and adopt new ‘genotype assay’ testing to quickly identify variants of concern and new mutations.

It is at the heart of the UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) plans for the next phase of the battle against the pandemic.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Trailblazing technologies are going to be pivotal to delivering on this bold ambition and I’m delighted that today we are bolstering our capabilities in testing and genomic sequencing with the opening of the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory.

“This laboratory will be one of the centrepieces of our efforts to manage this virus in the future, processing hundreds of thousands of positive Covid-19 tests a day to help us stop cases becoming outbreaks.

“Testing has already been instrumental in helping us control the virus and it is going to be essential to continue to protect ourselves and our communities in the months ahead. I’d urge everyone to take up our offer of free, twice-weekly rapid testing.

In the past year, a mammoth testing regime has been undertaken; more than 200 million Covid-19 tests have already been conducted, including over 100 million PCR tests.

Over 4.8 million positive cases have been contacted and told to self-isolate by NHS Test and trace.

The NHS finally rolled out its smartphone app for automated contact tracing in September, much later than originally planned, due to botching development on the original version of the app as it failed to work effectively on iPhones.

The first version, an NHSX app, was trialled on the Isle of Wight with a view to it being rolled out more widely across the country in May 2020. But by June, the Government had abandoned plans for creating its own data-centralised app from scratch, instead turning to the decentralised model developed collaboratively between Apple and Google, which the companies had made freely available.

Last month, researchers unveiled a less invasive Covid-19 test that uses saliva samples instead of the nasal and throat swabs used in current tests. 

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