Lateral flow tests were rolled out at universities across the country for mass asymptomatic testing before Christmas

Coronavirus: Concerns over lateral flow tests destined for schools after ‘poor performance’ at a university


Coronavirus: Concerns over lateral flow tests destined for schools after ‘poor performance’ at a university

Coronavirus: Concerns over lateral flow tests destined for schools after ‘poor performance’ at a university

A professor has raised concerns over the planned use of lateral flow devices to test pupils in schools after “poor performance” during mass testing at a university.

Professor Jonathan Deeks from the University of Birmingham said researchers estimated around 60 coronavirus cases were missed from students who got tested before returning home for Christmas, while only two were identified with the rapid tests used in the nationwide scheme.

Lateral flow devices are set to be rolled out to secondary schools and colleges as term starts in January, with a round of testing for the return, and then weekly coronavirus testing for teachers and daily coronavirus tests for students and staff identified as a close contact of a Covid cases to keep them in school.  

Prof Deeks told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it was “concerning” that only a couple of cases were found with these tests – which turn around results within minutes – out of around 7,100 students who came forward for asymptomatic testing before Christmas at the university. 

Research – led by Professor Alan McNally at the university – tested 10 per cent of the negative cases with PCR tests, and found another six coronavirus cases.

“Our summary was that we probably found two students and missed 60 with this test because of its poor performance,” Prof Deeks told the Today programme on Tuesday.

When pressed on what this would mean for schools preparing to use the devices in January, Prof Deeks said: “We would be missing people who’ve got Covid.”

He said: “The worst thing is actually the proposal that students when they’re in a class where one child has had Covid, they stay in the school and are tested with this test until they go positive because inevitably there’ll be students left in that class who’ve become infectious and infect others.

“So we’ll end up with outbreaks in the school which wouldn’t happen with our current policy of sending kids home.”

Secondary schools and colleges will have a staggered return in January to help headteachers roll out mass testing of students, with exam years, vulnerable children and key workers’ children to go back as normal on 4 January, while others have remote learning. All students are expected back by 11 January.

Experts have previously suggested that relying on rapid tests which give a result in minutes could mean a high proportion of cases are missed with false negative results.

Prof Deeks from the University of Birmingham said they found a “very, very low detection rate” at the university, saying “it really surprised us as to how bad it was”.

“It might possibly be better in schools, but the data are emerging that this test isn’t working well anywhere in asymptomatic people in people who don’t have symptoms,” he said. “It’s been designed to be used in people who do have symptoms that’s what the manufacturers said it should be used.”

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesperson said:  “The country’s leading scientists rigorously evaluated the Lateral Flow Test and confirmed the accuracy of the tests using a sample of over 8,500. Latest figures for similar settings showing sensitivity of 57.5 per cent generally and 84.3 per cent in people with high viral loads. 

“This means they are accurate, reliable and successfully identify those with Covid-19 who don’t show symptoms and could pass on the virus without realising.”

They added: “With up to a third of individuals with Covid-19 not displaying symptoms, broadening testing to identify those showing no symptoms will mean finding positive cases more quickly and break chains of transmission.

“Anyone who tested positive with a lateral flow test during the university testing earlier this month would have been asked to get a confirmatory PCR test.”

The Department for Education have been approached for comment.


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