England’s PCR Covid testing network drops one of three labs as demand falls | Coronavirus

England’s PCR testing network for Covid is to be scaled back due to a fall in demand, public health officials have said.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that the Rosalind Franklin laboratory in Leamington Spa – which at its peak was processing about 75,000 Covid PCR tests a day – will cease to operate as part of the processing network.

PCR tests will now be processed by existing NHS laboratories alone, reducing the number of sites from three to two.

“This change is possible thanks to vaccines and lateral flow tests continuing to help keep people safe and reducing the current need for PCR testing,” UKHSA said in a statement. It added that PCR testing could be scaled up quickly if necessary, for example, if a concerning new Covid variant emerged, or if a new pandemic occurred in the future.

UKHSA said the move would ensure value for money for taxpayers and meant the facility could be used for other purposes.

The Rosalind Franklin laboratory, named after one of the key figures in the discovery of the structure of DNA, began processing PCR tests in June 2021. It is the latest site to cease such operations, with processing already halted at a number of other sites within the Lighthouse laboratory network.

The major wind-down of facilities came in the wake of an end to free PCR testing for most people with Covid symptoms.

Oliver Munn, chief operating officer for Covid-19 testing at UKHSA, praised staff at the Rosalind Franklin laboratory.

“The lab has processed over 8.5 million samples since its opening and has played a huge role in protecting the nation,” he said.

However Prof James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute – which is not connected with the laboratory despite a similar name – warned that the pandemic is not over, and that there is still work to be done, including in improving air quality indoors and preventing and treating long Covid.

While Naismith added that it is for the UKHSA to judge how to meet the demand for diagnostic PCR tests, he stressed genomic surveillance – which relies on PCR tests – remains important.

“The key thing for the UK is to adequately surveil the range of variants in the country, trying to spot trends in newly emerging strains,” he said. “The UK has in my view been a world leader in much of this work and our insights have helped people across the globe. I would hope this is preserved.”

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, agreed.

“The decision to scale down testing is understandable given pressures faced by the UK,” he said. “However we should retain the option to scale up if needed and maintain vigilance for new variants in the community through the ONS Covid-19 study.”

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