Neale Hanvey MP led an adjournment debate this week on the Government’s preparedness for new COVID variants and other biological threats which have pandemic-potential.
Mr Hanvey bemoaned the Government’s efforts, declaring that though the Government know they must do more to learn from the pandemic, they are failing to do so. He pointed to countless Parliamentary debates and questions which he has been involved in which have so far failed to make an impact.
He called on the Government to do more to surveil biological threats, including COVID, calling vaccination without robust surveillance ‘a fool’s errand’. He did, however, praise the recent UKHSA 10-year strategy for its detail and committal to a tentative timeline.
Mr Hanvey then called on the Government to involve BIVDA, and thus the domestic diagnostics sector, in the direction of any future diagnostics strategy, stating: ‘given that the “Innovation in diagnostics” part of the UKSHA science strategy specifically mentions “research and development of new diagnostic technologies and innovative platforms”, that begs the question of how closely corporate entities, such as Moderna, will be involved in directing the process.
‘Will the Minister write to me, setting out in plain detail how such a strategy will harness the expertise of the domestic diagnostic sector, through organisations such as the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association?’
He continued, lambasting the Government’s attitude towards the domestic diagnostics industry during the pandemic: ‘During the pandemic, the UK Government stood accused of undermining the domestic diagnostic sector, driving some companies under with empty promises of orders, while innovative artificial intelligence technologies such as the Caledonia AI blood test and the Novacyt AI saliva test were sidelined. Both technologies can be adapted to screen for COVID and other emerging threats, such as Ebola and dengue fever.’
He suggested uploading profile information to AI would allow for instantaneous border screening for new threats and, given millions of people pass through our borders each year, the need for rapid deployment of accurate diagnostic screening is clear and obvious.
Mr Hanvey conveyed his disappointment that a UK diagnostics roundtable, which had been promised to him by the Government, had not materialised. Pressing the Minister on this issue, he said, ‘If we lose this intellectual capability and capacity through Government inaction [by not hosting a roundtable], that would be a further betrayal of the domestic diagnostic sector. What are the Government doing to secure and develop these technologies now, and will the Minister commit to meet me to consider a way forward?’
Mr Hanvey then turned his attention to workforce concerns, stating UKHSA was stripped of funding as part of the living with COVID strategy, which has put the jobs of 40% of its workforce at risk. He implored the Government to ensure funding and resources find their way to the public health frontline.
He once more urged the Government not to forget about COVID testing, even though its threat has diminished through vaccination. He noted that without regular testing, high level waste water surveillance is needed to act as an early warning system for new variants of concern.
Responding, Health Minister Maria Caulfield acknowledged that while the COVID-19 response had been scaled back, it was ready to be accelerated if needed – including testing and diagnosing. She claimed that the Government was monitoring COVID and respiratory pathogens through a number of programmes, including the continuation of genomic sequencing.
The Government, she said, also supports international surveillance programmes and fund new variant assessment platforms – allowing the Government to be alive to global threats. Proportionate contingency plans are in place if a variant with potential immune evasion is detected.
Ms Caulfield disagreed with Mr Hanvey’s grim assessment of the UK’s surveillance capacity, claiming the UK has necessary testing capability should we need to employ it.
She finished her statement by agreeing to meet to meet Mr Hanvey in future to discuss the finer points of his contribution.
BIVDA is appreciative of Mr Hanvey’s efforts to raise these important points in the Commons and will continue to update him about the state of the UK diagnostics industry. We hope that the meeting the Minister promised will allow for the long-promised diagnostics roundtable to materialise.
You can read the full debate here.