Governments mass testing ‘Moonshot’ plan to manage Covid-19

25th Sep 2020
Governments mass testing ‘Moonshot’ plan to manage Covid-19

(Photo credit: Omni Matryx/ Pixabay/CC)

Due to concerns over rising Covid-19 cases in the community, the Government announced the ‘Rule of six’ in England — no more than six people can meet up either inside or outside the home.

Contact tracing has shown that one of the biggest contributors to spreading the virus is private gatherings within people’s homes, so by restricting the numbers the Government hopes to slow down the spread of the virus.

With children back at school, universities opening campuses across the country and people being encouraged to return to work the government will be watching the numbers of new cases very closely over the coming weeks — hoping the new clear guidance will mean we can avoid a steep rise in cases.

Other European countries, such and France and Spain, also saw their numbers rising in the summer and are now seeing a rise in hospitalizations and deaths — if left unchecked this is exactly what health officials fear will happen in the UK too.

Over the past few weeks, the number of Covid-19 cases has been highest in younger age groups; those aged 15-44 years, according to government reports. So far this has not led to a similar rise in hospital admission, possibly because younger people do not always experience more severe forms of the disease.

However, if left unchecked the virus will spread within the community and hospital admission will inevitably rise just as they did in the spring.

In addition, Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has also raised concerns about data from the Joint Biosecurity Centre showing that the highest infection rates were in people aged between 17 and 21.

Given that colleges and universities are starting to open this is especially concerning. With education just starting up again after such a long break no-one wants to see a second lockdown and students sent home.

Besides, many businesses are just starting to get back to some level of trading and any type of lock-down could see many have to shut down for good.

The government, therefore, has a very difficult balancing act to manage: suppress the spread of the virus whilst maintaining the economy and keeping education establishments open.

As the winter months fast approach, reducing the ability for outside socializing, people will socialize more in-doors, which will help spread the virus. Thus, the government is looking at how to keep the country ‘open’ for business.

Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced ambitious plans for mass testing of the population with reports of up to 10 million rapid tests a day, with results delivered in as little as 20 minutes.

Named ‘Operation Moonshot’, testing on this level could go a long way to tackling Covid-19 but how realistic is 10 million people being tested a day, given we do not have testing anywhere near this level in place at the moment? How much would it cost?

Figures reported suggest it could cost £100 billion. A huge cost but given the benefits, it could bring in terms of keeping children at school, allowing businesses to operate and the economy to recover it might be worth it.

However, testing on this level requires a significant amount of organization and infrastructure, which as yet, we do not have and given the government’s promises about a ‘world-beating’ test and trace system (yet to be seen), and the issues in scaling up testing since the start of the outbreak it remains questionable if the government can deliver.

Mass testing of the population would give a very clear picture of where viral hotspots are, who should be isolating and who is clear to go about their daily business — in effect helping us to gain some sort of normality.

Testing and tracing on this scale would help to target viral cases and get a lock-on who needs to isolate, which in turn will drive down viral numbers. Rapid test results could even potentially allow people to be tested before entering venues allowing larger gatherings to go ahead.

Johnson thinks, ‘Moonshot’ is the best way for the UK economy to operate as we approach a predicted winter surge in cases — and no suitable vaccine available. Announcing his ambitious target the Prime Minister wants the country to put its efforts into developing its mass testing capabilities.

Currently, testing is at around 300,000 tests a day with the government aiming to increase to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. But there are growing reports of people who want a test being told no home tests are available and the nearest available test is miles away in another part of the country (often hundreds of miles away), indicating the system is not coping with demand at the moment, one of the issues being limited laboratory capacity.

Under ‘Operation Moonshot’ the government is proposing to increase testing to two to 4 million a day in December, rising to 10 million in early 2021. However, many scientists are sceptical this can be reached due to the increase in laboratory capacity that would be needed on top of the production of tests in such high numbers.

The Prime Minister has also said he wants rapid 20-minute tests, but as yet the technology is not up and running. Saliva tests are being trialled but no data has been reported yet. A mass screening trial is planned in Salford, where saliva tests will be offered to anyone who wants them.

This will trial both the saliva test and people’s enthusiasm for population screening — testing will take place at train stations and other public places. If successful it could be used in schools and universities to allow education to continue and in communities where outbreaks occur.

In theory, mass testing would help us control the virus and keep education and the economy open while we wait for a vaccine, but as the name ‘moonshot,’ suggests it is an optimistic target and whether the government can deliver remains to be seen.

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