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The contaminated Covid testing programme


THOSE of us who are dubious about the number of daily cases announced by the Government tend to focus on the false positive rate, as well as the low professional standards at testing centres, leading to cross-contamination before the samples make it to the labs. Focus has now begun to shift to the labs themselves, with Channel 4 broadcasting a Dispatches programme on Monday night that revealed various lapses at the superlab run by Randox in Northern Ireland that analyses Covid-19 tests from across Britain.

An undercover reporter discovered serious failings, including cross-contamination of test samples. One expert told Dispatches that the lab’s ‘cavalier approach to safety’ could lead to potentially wrong test results. By ‘wrong’ they mean a person could be wrongly diagnosed as positive. After all, if two swabs contaminate each other – one negative, the other positive – they both end up as positive. If cross-contamination is happening at these superlabs, and we have every reason to believe it is, the number of positives is being inflated.

Yesterday Lockdown Sceptics published an original piece by Dr Julian Harris, a veteran scientist. He got a job in July at the Lighthouse lab in Milton Keynes, one of three superlabs in England run by UK Biocentre, a company that has received billions in Government contracts. An experienced virologist with a background in biosafety, Dr Harris was horrified by what he witnessed during his first few days on the job. There was no proper induction for new employees familiarising them with how to handle biohazardous material, little awareness of the correct biosafety protocols to follow in the labs and little awareness of the risk of cross-contamination. After his superiors showed insufficient interest in his complaints – treating him as an ‘irritant’, in his words – he decided to tip off the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). He then worked with the HSE, providing them with real-time information when he encountered a health and safety breach. Before long, the HSE decided it needed to mount a proper on-site investigation.

After he stopped working at the lab, Dr Harris got in touch with a BBC reporter and an Independent journalist and, when the HSE confirmed to them that it had written to UK Biocentre and notified them of numerous contraventions of health and safety law, they both ran stories last month. But those stories lacked granular detail because the HSE wouldn’t share the letters it had written to the lab operator, either with Dr Harris or the journalists.

Not to be fobbed off, Dr Harris submitted an FoI request to the HSE and on Thursday he hit pay dirt: a copy of the correspondence the HSE had sent to UK Biocentre, including two letters containing long lists of health and safety breaches. We’re publishing both of these letters – you can find them at the foot of Dr Harris’s article here.

Here’s an extract from Dr Harris’s piece:

‘I’ll give you some examples of the kind of breaches I discovered.

‘There were >20 Class II Biosafety cabinets (BSCs) for the initial processing of the swab samples. The cabinets are designed to protect the sterility of the samples and protect the operator from any potential contagion in the samples. Unfortunately, overloading cabinets with swab sample bags and unnecessary equipment was a common occurrence. This put the operator at risk of exposure to aerosols containing pathogens escaping from the cabinets into the lab environment, as well as endangering the integrity of the swab samples in the cabinet and risking them becoming contaminated by virus and virus components circulating in the lab.

‘A build-up of dirt in the cabinets can also compromise the integrity of the swab samples. But there was no schedule at appropriate intervals to fully clean all interior surfaces of the cabinets. Fumigation of the cabinets to inactivate any contaminants before servicing – which is supposed to happen regularly – only happened annually at this lab. The UK Biocentre, which operated the lab, felt it was acceptable to clean an unfumigated cabinet by sticking half your body into the apparatus in an attempt to clean the interior. Another high-risk practice was technicians regularly doubling up to process the biohazardous swab samples, interrupting the protective air flows generated by the cabinets and further increasing the risk to the integrity of the cabinet environment.

‘The lab where the real-time PCR assay was run was kept under negative pressure for processing purposes, which meant no air from other areas was supposed to enter this room and potentially contaminate the assay. But cross-contamination issues started at the beginning of the process before the samples were taken to the PCR lab. The main causes of cross-contamination are the way members of the public use the swab kits; contamination of the insides of the tubes and cap by the operator; and the contamination of the thread of sample tubes with sample medium as shown below. These issues are exacerbated by the poor quality of most sample tubes/caps and suppliers’ mix-and-matching tubes to caps, so some of them don’t fit properly.

‘A dangerous practice I observed in the lab was the passing of leaky tubes to the liquid handling personnel, unknowingly putting them at risk, as well as contributing to the risk of cross-contamination.’

There’s more in this vein, and if you read Dr Harris’s piece, as well as the two letters, the picture that emerges of one of the UK’s largest Covid laboratories is shocking. The UK Government is basing its decisions to impose draconian restrictions on people’s movements, causing catastrophic harm to the economy as well as public health, on testing data that simply cannot be relied upon, thanks to numerous health and safety breaches and the concomitant risk of cross-contamination.

When asked about the myriad ways in which it was contravening health and safety law, the Milton Keynes lab told the BBC that no improvement notice had been issued by the HSE. That’s true, but the lab operator was forced to pay a hefty fee to cover the inspectors’ time, which Dr Harris estimates was between £15,000 and £20,000. UK Biocentre was also told to get its house in order by October 23.

This is an important story. Let’s hope other, better-resourced media outfits than Lockdown Sceptics follow it up.

Read it in full here.

This article first appeared in Lockdown Sceptics on November 20, 2020, and is republished by kind permission.

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Toby Young
Toby Young
Toby Young is an associate editor of the Spectator and founder of Lockdown Sceptics.

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