Health workers and volunteers handle lateral flow test samples and record results as students take coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests at Harris Academy Beckenham, UK Photograph:( Reuters )
UK government advice says PCR tests are more accurate than lateral flow devices (LFDs), and people can stop self-isolating if a positive LFD result is followed by a negative PCR test result
A British scientist has said that flawed PCR tests mistook common colds and flu for COVID-19 and should have been axed.
''Many people may not have been infectious, despite getting a positive test,'' professor Francois Balloux, director of University College London's Genetics Institute, told The Mail on Sunday.
UK government advice says PCR tests are more accurate than lateral flow devices (LFDs), and people can stop self-isolating if a positive LFD result is followed by a negative PCR test result.
Professor Alan McNally, a University of Birmingham microbiologist who helped set up the Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes, said the decision meant PCR testing methods were ''largely standardised''.
''There appears to have been little or no oversight of these new labs, and with different PCR methods and equipment being used,'' says Prof McNally.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) had suspended a COVID-19 testing laboratory in central England over concern that it has been incorrectly giving negative PCR test results to people who are infected.
NHS Test and Trace launched an investigation into a lab in Wolverhampton after reports of people getting negative PCR test results after testing positive on rapid lateral flow devices (LFDs).
UKHSA said an estimated 43,000 people may have been given incorrect negative PCR test results, mainly in southwest England, possibly underestimating the number of people with coronavirus between September 8. and October 12.
Immensa Health Clinic, the private company who run the lab, was founded in May 2020, and had been awarded contracts worth 170 million pounds ($234 million) to process results of PCR tests.
Its chief executive, Andrea Riposati, said the company was "fully collaborating" with UKHSA's investigation, and did "not wish this matter or anything else to tarnish the amazing work done by the UK in this pandemic."
Riposati also runs Dante Labs, which is being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) over allegations it has failed to deliver PCR test results on time or sometimes at all.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced criticism, with many saying NHS Test and Trace falls well short of the "world-beating" system he had promised.
''In Milton Keynes, every test we performed was scrutinised and checked by experts, the quality was poured over every day and we were held to account,'' says Prof McNally.
''Clearly in some of the newer labs, that didn't happen. Cynically, one might say it almost turned into a money-making exercise for the private sector as we had lateral flows by then and everyone knew how do them.''
''Why did we need expensive PCRs? The test results basically became meaningless.''
''I've been contacted a couple of times about other examples,' says Prof McNally. ''There will always be errors in labs, usually they're caught quickly. Immensa was only the worst one.''