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MPs group warns labs risk missing new Covid variants

The chair of a parliamentary group focused on Covid-19 has warned the public is at risk of more Covid-19 variants because too few PCR tests are being properly analysed.

Layla Moran MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, called for more genomic sequencing of positive tests so scientists are less likely to miss new variants.

Her call came after figures from the UK Health Security Agency suggested only 10-20% of positive Covid-19 PCR tests undergo genomic analysis because labs lack the capability to do more.

“Despite claims that the UK is a global leader in genome sequencing, it’s now clear that the government is mishandling yet another critical part of our pandemic response and putting the public at risk of other new, potentially catastrophic variants,” she said.

“We applaud the timely reaction of scientists in South Africa in identifying the Omicron variant, but every country carries this responsibility and ministers must explain why so few tests are being genetically sequenced in the UK and outline plans to increase capacity.”

Concern about the new variant has prompted the UK government to add 11 African countries to its red list for travel and reintroduce the requirement for arrivals coming to the UK to take a pre-departure Covid testcausing uproar among the travel trade.

Health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed on Monday (December 6) there are now 261 confirmed cases of the new variant in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales, bringing the total number of confirmed cases across the UK to 336.

“This includes cases with no links to international travel, so we can conclude that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” he said.

“We have seen with previous new variants how strong defences at the border, combined with the capacity we have built for genomic sequencing, can give us the best possible chance of identifying and responding to new variants.

“We will be reviewing the measures, along with the other temporary measures we have announced, and we will update the House next week.”

He also told MPs that more than 100 providers have been removed from the government website in recent weeks, and some 20 were removed last weekend for showing misleading prices.

During the summer, Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Select Committee, reported that only 5% of all the PCR tests from arriving passengers that came back positive in a three-week period during July 1 were genome sequenced.

He pointed out: “Passengers spent £35 million on PCR tests in that three-week period which equates to about £100,000 per sequenced test.”

Picture by angellodeco/Shutterstock

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