How to improve UK COVID-19 testing and build strong diagnostic services

More investment and important changes are needed to boost UK testing services, to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and build a diagnostics service that will head off future UK health challenges, says a meeting report* published by the Academy of Medical Sciences today [Wednesday 11 November 2020].

The report highlights that the UK did not have an established national testing system at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so new systems had to be put in place rapidly. The Academy of Medical Sciences brought together 23 leading experts, to share learnings from the past ten months and discuss what changes should be made to strengthen future diagnostic testing services, at a virtual meeting on Friday 2 October 2020.

The resulting meeting report and a statement** from the Academy’s Council ask for swift action to be taken to strengthen UK disease testing, including:

  • Enhancing collaboration across the NHS, universities and industry to make best use of their combined strengths. Representatives from these three sectors must be involved in the development of future testing strategies, with greater transparency and timely communication of decisions to all involved. This will inform academia and industry about how they can most usefully contribute.
  • Making sure that local laboratories can play their part in COVID-19 testing and support national approaches.
  • Developing and adopting more innovative ways of testing for COVID-19, for example pooling multiple samples for testing, testing for several viruses at the same time and improving packaging to speed up the analysis of samples.
  • Adopting a more flexible approach to regulation – also known as laboratory accreditation – so that as many laboratories as possible can contribute to national testing without unnecessary delays.
  • Providing longer term testing contracts to reduce any risks for companies wanting to carry out COVID-19 testing, and to enable them to contribute to current efforts.
  • Ensuring a sustainable workforce with a strategy to bring staff into testing laboratories, providing much needed career opportunities, including for recent graduates, in a challenging jobs market.


Professor Sir John Tooke FMedSci, Chair of the virtual roundtable, said:

“COVID-19 has shown us how important accurate, speedy diagnosis at scale is for fighting this infection. The pandemic required the expansion of UK testing services beyond anything we have ever needed in the past. At the beginning of the UK COVID-19 epidemic, important decisions around testing were necessarily made at speed. Inevitably, there were things that, with the benefit of hindsight, could have been done better and which we must address to cope with subsequent waves or future pandemics.

“We must continue to build on the collaborations between industry, academia and the NHS to take full advantage of all the talent and capabilities we possess. Despite its importance and many notable strengths the UK diagnostic sector is fragmented and underdeveloped. Now is the time to invest in our UK diagnostic services and build a system that can cope with the pandemic and whatever future health challenges we may face.”


Helen Dent, Chief Operations Officer at British In Vitro Diagnostics Association (BIVDA) and attendee of the virtual roundtable, said:

“To carry out the number of tests needed, we have to bring in skills and capacity from across the UK and coordinate different sectors in a better way. This didn’t happen enough in the early stages of the pandemic, for example smaller companies found it hard to get involved as the financial and contractual risks they faced were too large.

“There are a growing number of smaller biotech companies who are willing to pitch in and support the UK testing system. Let’s find a way to get as many labs as possible involved so we can get the country through this pandemic while also putting much needed funds into our own economy.”


Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“One of the most wicked and unusual features of COVID-19 is that you can have it, not know you have it and yet still infect others. The fact that COVID-19 symptoms have commonalities with many other diseases such as the common cold means that testing is one of the most important tools to fight COVID-19, alongside handwashing and physical distancing, so that people can isolate and reduce the spread of infection. So it is vital that we do all we can to improve and strengthen our testing services to head off the pandemic.

When testing services were rapidly expanded at the start of the UK epidemic, there was not enough energy put into building up partnerships between university research laboratories, the NHS and industry. This held up progress earlier in the year, but there are a few fantastic examples where collaboration increased testing capacity that we can learn from. For example, in Norfolk a local collaboration between the Norwich Research Park Partners has seen The Earlham Institute and the University of East Anglia (UEA) support the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital to scale up COVID-19 testing capacity, leading to a seven-fold increase in test processing.

“The pandemic has now catalysed a level of cross sector collaboration we have never seen before. The crucial thing is to prioritise retaining and strengthening these bonds. If we manage to do this, we can build a diagnostic system that will be able to cope with further waves of COVID-19 infections, possible future epidemics and help meet the demands for tests for other diseases such as cancer and heart disease.”


Professor Sir John Tooke added:  

“Doing the best job of testing demands the inclusion of expert voices from NHS, academia and industry in developing plans, and ensuring that local efforts complement national strategy.

“To meet increasing testing requirements, we need faster accreditation for diagnostic laboratories, by cutting red tape to get as many labs as possible involved in the national testing effort. We have seen how new treatments can be approved more quickly during the pandemic without losing important safety and efficacy checks – the same needs to happen for accrediting laboratories doing testing.

“In the early stages of the pandemic many volunteer technicians and students were brought into testing laboratories. Many of these skilled volunteers have returned to their day jobs, so we now need to reinvest and train more laboratory staff to replenish this pool of workers. This will provide much needed employment opportunities, including for graduates, in a challenging jobs market.

“Finally we need to find new and innovative ways of testing for COVID-19 – and to make sure that the incredible discoveries being made in UK and international research institutes make it through to testing facilities. Innovative testing systems combined with hand washing, physical distancing and isolation will help us get a hold on the spread of infection and get us back to what we remember as ‘normal’ life – visiting grandparents, going to the theatre and football matches and travelling abroad safely.”


The project and staff and activity costs for this work were part funded by a core grant the Academy of Medical Sciences receives annually from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), but the work was carried out independently of Government.




For more information, copies of the report and report lay summary and requests for interview please contact:

Naomi Clarke, Senior Communications Officer, Academy of Medical Sciences, 07903 158979, [email protected]  


*The report ‘Lessons learnt: the role of academia and industry in the UK’s diagnostic testing response to COVID-19’ is available to download from the right of this page.

The Academy of Medical Sciences’ report summarises the key points from a virtual roundtable [Friday 2 October 2020] which explored the role of academia and industry in the UK’s diagnostic testing response to COVID-19 by bringing together stakeholders from across academia, industry, funders, the NHS and Government. Opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of all participants at the event, the Academy of Medical Sciences, or its Fellows.


**The Academy has developed a statement outlining actions to ensure that the capacity and capability in academia and industry are utilised to best effect to support the UK’s future diagnostic testing response. The statement has been informed by the roundtable discussions detailed in the report. The statement is available to download from the banner on the right of this page.


Notes for Editors

  1. The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Our elected Fellows are the UK’s leading medical scientists from hospitals, academia, industry and the public service. Our mission is to advance biomedical and health research and its translation into benefits for society. We are working to secure a future in which:
  • UK and global health is improved by the best research.
  • The UK leads the world in biomedical and health research, and is renowned for the quality of its research outputs, talent and collaborations.
  • Independent, high quality medical science advice informs the decisions that affect society.
  • More people have a say in the future of health and research.

Our work focusses on four key objectives, promoting excellence, developing talented researchers, influencing research and policy and engaging patients, the public and professionals.

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