Lex letter from London: tribulations, trials and triumphs
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Britain this week returns to lockdown. Prime minister Boris Johnson’s U-turn sparked controversy and despair. Practitioners of the dismal science, though, are relatively sanguine.
Economists expect the impact to be a lot less damaging than in the first wave. If the UK restrictions end in early December as planned, the hope is that consumers merely postpone rather than cancel spending plans.
But some expenditure will be lost for good. The most acute pain would be felt by companies operating airlines, hotels, travel agencies, pubs, restaurants and cinemas, Lex said.
There was also unease about a frightening, but out-of-date, slide shown to the public — and ministers — by the government’s top scientific adviser to explain the lockdown decision.
Patrick Vallance said the slide, which suggested deaths could peak at 4,000 a day, was a model, not a forecast. But that projection, drawn up in early October, has since been revised down. Top statistician David Spiegelhalter was “very unimpressed” the graph was used.
That does not invalidate the decision to lock down, though. Liverpool’s intensive care beds were 95 per cent full in mid-October. The city has been particularly badly hit by the pandemic, making it a logical choice for a mass testing pilot that will launch on Friday.
In principle, at least, this could be a breakthrough. Mass testing’s ability to pick up asymptomatic cases — a significant proportion of the total — is a big advantage. Some experts have been calling for it since the start of the pandemic. It has been adopted by countries that have been successful in suppressing the virus.
Until recently, sceptics thought such an approach might lead to too many false positives. But there is good news on this front. A review of available tests for the government came up with six that had very high specificity rates, at around 99.9 per cent. That means that if 1,000 people are tested, there will be one false positive — a manageable number for a population-wide screen.
Though the tests produce few false positives, they are less successful at picking up everyone who has the virus. Even so, they can be a valuable tool. One study found that testing people twice a week with a relatively insensitive test could be more effective at curbing the virus’s spread than more-accurate tests done once every two weeks.
But there are big questions. One concerns a reliance on overseas suppliers for the tests. Huge quantities of tests will be needed, and there is already a worldwide shortage. Swiss drugmaker Roche said last week that manufacturers were “totally sold out” as it ramped up production of its rapid test, launched in partnership with South Korea’s SD Biosensor.
The UK appears to be relying on US companies Innova, Abbott and LumiraDx. It has reportedly also signed contracts with SD Biosensor and China’s Zhejiang Orient Gene. Despite the ambition to build up the UK’s diagnostic industry, none of the UK suppliers has yet come up with a “lateral flow” test that is good enough, the FT has reported. Those tests detect specific proteins — known as antigens — on the surface of the virus, rather than genetic materials. Quick and cheap, they are particularly suitable for mass testing.
But UK companies will play a role. Contracts worth more than £430m have been signed with West Sussex-based Optigene and Oxford Nanopore, once backed by Neil Woodford in his Equity Income fund, for the supply of “loop-mediated isothermal amplification” tests. These are faster than conventional ones, though still need laboratory processing. Anglo-French biotech Novacyt secured a contract with the government at the end of September for its rapid version of the gold-standard “PCR” test. Its shares are up from £0.14 to £9.67 this year.
Rapid testing is not a panacea. Daily screening using a test devised by US healthcare company Abbott — which correctly identifies Covid-19 cases 95 per cent of the time — did not stop the outbreak in the White House last month.
But mass screening could open the door to a more normal life. Lex reckons there is a real chance wholesale screening could help the UK economy reopen. “This is a way to give people something positive, not to beat them up,” said Oxford university’s John Bell. “My gut instinct is we can get this to work.”
With that glimmer of hope, enjoy the rest of the week.