Trial of two-test system would produce real-world data, says Scott Sunderman managing director of medical and security assistance at Collinson, which is behind Heathrow’s testing centre

The government – and the World Health Organisation – has been clear: testing is the safest way to combat Covid-19.

Yet, when it comes to travel, even though the government states that it has been exploring the idea for weeks, it prefers to rely on a mixture of open borders for some countries and strict 14-day quarantines for others – and which list a country finds itself on changes weekly.

Further, when asked to actually conduct a trial of testing on arrival, the government replies that testing would only uncover 7% of people infected with Covid-19 and therefore it’s of little use.

The uncertainty caused by the current approach, where countries jump from a ‘safe to travel’ to ‘quarantine’ list overnight, and the government’s use of the 7% figure as a bogeyman to scare the unwitting traveller, are decimating traveller confidence.

However, the 7% figure is wrong, and I want to explain why before the government makes more decisions that have sweeping implications for the UK’s economic recovery, travel sector, and on travel and tourism.

Firstly, with its 7% figure, the government is simply relying on computer modelling, not real-world data. Moreover, it is relying on computer modelling that was done months ago, based on what was known in January – only a few weeks after we knew that the virus existed at all, and before PCR testing for Covid-19 was even possible. Given this, it’s no wonder that wrong data was produced.

The computer model assumes that it is only those who develop symptoms who can be detected or, if the subject is asymptomatic, a similar time has elapsed since infection before a PCR test will show as positive.

We now know, however, that PCR can detect infections well before symptoms start. In fact, as we all know, transmission of the virus can even occur when infected individuals are feeling entirely well.

The Public Health England (PHE) algorithm was the best we knew at the time, but it is now clearly wrong and must be updated.

In addition to being out of date, the PHE model also makes some further strange assumptions, in particular that only those who are uninfected will board the aircraft.

As about 50% of people can become infected but will develop no symptoms, it is strange to think that this group of people will choose not to fly – they feel well: why wouldn’t they fly? Taken with the erroneous 7% figure, these issues mean that only a very small percentage of people could possibly be detected when receiving a PCR test on arrival: mostly those who have developed the illness during the flight – everyone else is discounted, or thought to be undetectable. This is clearly wrong.

Further, the government does not seem to be looking at external real-world data from other countries. Locations such as France, Iceland, and Jersey have all shown that the Coronavirus PCR test has a much higher efficacy than 7%. Indeed, if the 7% figure were correct, these countries would have been subject to hundreds and in many cases, thousands of infected patients who had ‘beat’ the PCR test. Luckily, this is not the case.

So, by relying on early algorithms, and ignoring data from countries which have actually been doing airport PCR tests for months, the government is in the dark.

We want to help the government make an informed, scientific decision, so we stand with the industry in recommending a two-test model: testing on arrival, with a re-test on day five.

By conducting a trial based on this, real-world data for analysis would be produced on which the government can base decisions – and to accurately and scientifically judge whether testing on arrival can keep the country safe.

And, because we can give results by day six, that’s eight more days for people who do not have the virus to get back to work, get back to school and get back to doing the things we love.

It would allow the travel industry to rebuild traveller confidence in the safety measures in place when they travel, help restart transatlantic trade routes, and ultimately help our economy recover.

It’s our priority to shorten quarantine time for those who test negative for the virus. All we need now is government buy-in.


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