An article in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) claims that leaked emails show the health department blocked a paper about a study that raised questions concerning the accuracy of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) antibody test kit. The kit – known as AbC-19 – comes under the ‘Operation Moonshot’ umbrella.
In September, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced a new project, Operation Moonshot, which he explained would use testing so as to:
identify people who are negative – who don’t have coronavirus and who are not infectious – so we can allow them to behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus.
On 11 November, a paper was published in the BMJ regarding a study “funded and implemented by Public Health England, supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Clinical Research Network (CRN) Portfolio”. The paper’s authors were affiliated with Public Health England (PHE) and the universities of Bristol, Warwick, and Cambridge. The study examined the accuracy of the rapid antibody testing programme for 4,842 key workers.
The paper concluded that based on the assumption that 10% of the tested population have had the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) infection, “around one in five key workers testing positive with AbC-19 would be false positives”.
If the AbC-19 test were to be used for mass population screening in a relatively low prevalence setting, we would anticipate a large number of false positive results (for example, 18 900 for every 1 million tests carried out).
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However, it’s been reported by Stephen Armstrong, another BMJ journalist, that publication of the preprint of the paper, which is yet to be peer reviewed, was blocked by the government. Also, the BMJ has seen emails, dating back to September, that show “officials at the [Department of Health and Social Care] knew about the disappointing results of the PHE study before the announcement [of purchasing one million AbC-19 tests]”. One of the emails, from the Department of Health, stated that all key figures in government – meaning ministers, special advisers, and 10 Downing Street – were “aligned” in blocking the publication.
In a November 17 article in the BMJ, journalist Gareth Iacobucci referred to a “major expansion” of Operation Moonshot’s mass testing programme, utilising lateral flow tests. He added how these “rapid diagnostic tests” are designed to provide results in 10-30 minutes.
But Iacobucci also reported that Jon Deeks, professor of biostatistics at Birmingham University, commented how:
The poor detection rate of the [lateral flow] test makes it entirely unsuitable for the government’s claim that it will allow the safe ‘test and release’ of people from lockdown and students from university.
When queried if the test meant it would be safe for people to visit their families over Christmas, Deeks told iNews: “We would end up with 400,000 people in the country getting false positive results. So their Christmas would then be in lockdown wrongly”.
Clinical scientist Dipender Gill and clinical immunologist Mark J Ponsfield even referred to possible “societal harm” arising from the tests:
The risk of false positives is particularly concerning. If antibody responses are used as an indicator of immunity, for example, test results may influence both individual and government decisions about permissible risk of exposure, and false positives may therefore do considerable societal harm
In another BMJ article Bing Jones, former associate specialist in haematology, Sheffield; Jack Czauderna, former GP Sheffield; and Paul Redgrave, former director of public health, Sheffield, described the government’s Test and Trace programme as a “lethal mistake”. They suggest that “the media and our profession appear complicit in allowing systematic misinformation, egregious miscalculation, delay, and diversion of public funds, to benefit private companies”.
The national Test and Trace is a disaster. Its design means that it cannot possibly contain outbreaks of covid-19. It is obsessed with testing at the expense of all the other necessary links in the chain of actions needed to control outbreaks. It fails to detect asymptomatic people and those who are unwilling or unable to be tested and it ignores false negatives.
Instead, they advocate that:
The privatised national Test and Trace system must be brought back under the control of the NHS and local public health experts with support from general practice as outlined by Independent Sage. Assessment of patients prior to and after testing by professionals, must be put in place. Primary care is best placed to provide this.
The Cummings effect
The leaked emails show that PHE first raised with the government the problem of inaccuracies regarding antibody testing in September. But the government blocked the paper that reported on the PHE-led study. The following month, the government announced that a £75m contract for one million antibody tests had been awarded to Abingdon Health. A further £10m was awarded to Abingdon Health for “components and materials” in regard to Covid-19 “lateral flow” tests.
A judicial review of the Abingdon Health awards has now been requested by the Good Law Project (GLP). GLP has also commenced judicial review proceedings against Operation Moonshot, which will be overseen by Dominic Cummings while working from his home.
In the meantime, it’s reported by The Canary that another legal challenge has been launched, claiming that “prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock acted “unlawfully” when appointing key figures to top posts during the coronavirus crisis”. The figures referred to are: “test and trace boss and Tory peer Baroness Dido Harding; Kate Bingham, head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce; and Mike Coupe, director of NHS Test and Trace”.
It’s all about transparency – or lack of it – and how science is being ignored by a government that continues to be chaotic in how it responds to the pandemic and its effects on peoples’ lives and livelihoods.
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