I want to take the opportunity to update Members on how Wales is planning to benefit from the development of new technologies in Covid-19 testing.
New technologies may make it possible to test at far greater scale, frequency and speed. These developments potentially provide added armoury for our response to the pandemic and build on our existing PCR testing system.
New testing technologies could potentially:
- enable population surveillance;
- enable more active case finding;
- reduce turnaround times enabling contact tracing to commence at pace to isolate contacts faster; and
- utilise more regular testing as a means of enabling greater normality to life while preventing transmission.
We need to utilise the best of what these new technologies can offer, in ways which are trusted, safe and help achieve our overarching aims to save lives and livelihoods.
Together with the other Devolved Governments we are working with UK Government on the new technology developments as part of the mass testing programme. Wales will be allocated a population share of the new technologies available under the programme. I want to ensure that we pilot and deploy new technology that will add value and provide greatest benefits.
In considering the appropriate use for Wales one of the most important metrics for new technologies are sensitivity and specificity. Sensitivity is the chance that the test gives a false negative; specificity the chance of a false positive. Other considerations in planning deployment are the validation processes and understanding end to end system impact.
The mass testing programme includes a number of lab developments. LAMP technology amplifies RNA and allows detection of the virus, usually more swiftly and more portably than PCR, albeit not quite as accurately. In addition more rapid testing with point of care and lateral flow devices are possible.
One of the lab developments within the UK-wide programme provides a fully staffed and operational semi-permanent laboratory within a container that can process up to 10,000 tests per day. Wales has one for the first phase roll-out and this will be located at the Deeside Regional Test Site with a planned soft launch, subject to successful completion of the validation process, in early December.
Point of Care (POC) devices utilise technology in a small (shoe box size) machine that can be processed quickly and close to the patient. We are working with other Governments in the UK on the validation of point of care devices that can potentially be deployed in Wales.
Lateral flow devices (LFDs) normally involve a nasal and/or throat swab or saliva sample and results are read in a similar way to home pregnancy tests. Sensitivity is less than PCR but they can be effective in identifying individuals who are infectious. While less accurate than PCR, they offer point of care results in a less than an hour raising the opportunity to run regular mass testing and surveillance with specific groups with swift results. Provided these tests can be brought forward successfully, I have asked officials to work with the social care sector to consider ways in which tests could be deployed to advance the current pilots on mobile health and social care professionals who travel between people’s homes and support visits by family and friends in the care home sector.
A number of pilots utilising the new technology are currently under development or due to be rolled out, utilising LFDs, under the UK programme. I have asked officials to plan at pace opportunities to have pilots in Wales that allow us to test LFDs, the high level characteristics of the delivery models and the management of positive cases within each setting. The pilots will also enable us to examine the practicalities of throughput, test engagement, communications, supply and logistics, gauge user experience and importantly allow us to observe people’s positive and negative behaviours associated with regular screening.
There is a great deal of work to do to ensure that we can exploit the benefits of these technologies and minimise any potential adverse effects. I will keep Senedd Members updated with progress.