Private groups race to meet Covid testing demand from UK companies

Private health companies are racing to meet the demand for coronavirus tests from UK corporate clients with some setting up temporary laboratories near businesses that want to bring staff back into work.

With rising case numbers straining public sector testing capacity, private providers have reported a surge in demand, particularly from businesses.

In an effort to return 5,000 employees to its submarines business, defence company BAE Systems has contracted Circular 1 Health, a health logistics company, to mass test its workforce at a pop-up laboratory on site, using a number of rapid tests including one produced by biotech company MicrosensDX that provides results in 60 minutes. The MicrosensDX test uses “Lamp” technology — a very new genetic testing technique that promises faster results than conventional swab testing.

Circular 1 Health’s testing services are also being used at the Sellafield nuclear decommissioning site, several private schools and an academy trust in North West England.

Most private tests on the market, of which there are dozens, use polymerase chain reaction technology — the gold standard genetic test that requires a swab and takes between 24 and 48 hours to provide a result. There is also a small number of groups offering antibody tests, which look for evidence of an immune reaction caused by past contact with the virus, rather than whether it is present at the moment, though experts question the value of these.

“The corporate market has been brewing for the last six months,” said Mark Ali, chief executive and founder of the Private Harley Street Clinic in London, which has been providing PCR testing services for private equity firms, investment banks, property developers and law firms. “People have been looking very aggressively at getting people back to work.”

Among clients of private testing companies are schools, private equity groups, investment banks and law firms © Bloomberg

After the government’s U-turn on work arrangements last month, which saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson tell workers to stay at home if they could, it is expected that demand for testing will slow from some corporate clients. But demand from other sectors such as universities, independent schools and factories is compensating.

Dr Ali said demand for the clinic’s testing services was 30 times higher than it was over the summer, and that the clinic had employed 20 more people in the past few months. He noted though that some of the interest had died down because of new government restrictions.

Bupa, one of the UK’s biggest private health groups, is providing tests to more than 250 organisations around the UK, including private equity firms such as Advent International.

Meanwhile, the English Premier League has hired Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based biotechnology group, to conduct tests on football players and club staff at least once a week. The EPL is spending £16m on costs related to the pandemic, a significant proportion of which relates to its testing regime.

Seth Rankin, co-founder of the London Medical Laboratory, a clinic and laboratory, said demand for its PCR tests had risen from 100 to 1,000 a day this month. Its test costs £149.

Qured, a healthcare and testing provider, said demand from business had risen 400 per cent over the past month to about 10,000 tests a month. The company said a quarter of this was from the financial industry, but it had also signed contracts with Transport for London as well as sports and entertainment companies.

Most of the tests offered by private clinics and health companies are processed by a small number of private laboratories, such as The Doctor’s Laboratory and Randox, which charge about £80 per test.

Some of these labs have been overwhelmed by demand in recent weeks. The Doctors Laboratory, the largest test processor in the UK after the government’s lighthouse laboratories — “pop-up” facilities created to meet the growing demand for processing — wrote to customers last month saying it had reached full capacity and could not process any more tests for the virus.

In the letter, seen by the Financial Times, the lab asked its clients to only send tests from hospitalised or symptomatic patients or those who needed to travel for work. 

With the abundance of new providers appearing on the market at the same time, the difficulty for many businesses is identifying the most reliable option to provide security for their workforce. 

“There’s too much shoddy science around at the moment, it tarnishes the companies trying to do it right,” said Joe Fitchett, chief executive of diagnostics company Mologic, which has developed a rapid Covid-19 test but is still awaiting regulatory approval. “I’ve never seen it like this. Tests are being pushed through for commercial reasons, not scientific reasons.”

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