Better late than never I suppose. Tonight’s episode of Panorama – Undercover: Inside the Covid Testing Lab – reveals that staff at the Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes have been cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could lead to cross-contamination between test samples. Readers will recall that Lockdown Sceptics published an expose of the very same lab – “Heath and Safety Breaches at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab” – by an ex-member of staff in November of last year. BBC News has more.
A BBC reporter working as a lab technician, filmed staff cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could cause contamination.
This means some people who had taken a test via NHS Test and Trace may have received no result or a wrong result.
The lab said it had followed all necessary rules and regulations.
Evidence at the lab captured on film shows:
* Checks to ensure samples could be identified, were rushed, meaning tests were sometimes discarded unnecessarily
* Some test samples “glooped” across an area where other samples had been placed, risking contamination
* Swabs used by people to take Covid tests were left in their tubes when processed, presenting a further contamination risk
* A quality control scientist telling the reporter that the quality of the results progressively got worse throughout the day
The findings have led experts to question the way the lab was operating.
The story on BBC News uses the phrase “potential contamination”, but, incredibly, does not use the phrase “false positives”, as if the contamination could be in both directions, with some positive becoming false negatives after being contaminated with material from negative test swabs. Obviously, that isn’t possible. The contamination is all in one direction – negative samples being contaminated with material from positive swabs, thereby becoming false positives.
What this Panorama story tells us is that the number of cases reported by PHE in England during the pandemic, which is partly based on the findings of Lighthouse Labs like the one in Milton Keynes, has been inflated thanks to cross-contamination in the labs.
The BBC story is worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Dr Martin Evison, a retired Professor of Forensic and Biological Anthropology and occasional contributor to Lockdown Sceptics, has been in touch to comment on the BBC News story.
I don’t suppose this ‘news’ from the BBC will come as news to anyone who has worked on the PCR analysis of trace samples. It is exactly what one would expect from rushed high volume mass testing with limited and secretive verification.
The BBC article still hasn’t mentioned a key issue in relation to contamination – that is, the use of negative ‘blank’ controls. These should be included at key points in RNA extraction and analysis to establish that purification and PCR steps, test plates, manual or automated liquid handling and so on are free of intrusive SARS-CoV-2 RNA or derived DNA contamination. Blanks should be run regularly to measure background contamination in the laboratory or production line.
I made a futile attempt to find out what controls were being used via an FOI request some months ago, but didn’t get very far.
Judging by the article, it seems a decision was made just to accept an unknown amount of contamination for the sake of throughput in a way that would be unacceptable in forensic work, for example.
It does leave one wondering how much SARS-CoV-2 infection is really circulating when the positive test levels drop to their minimum and whether contamination could also be contributing to mis-classification of non-covid fatalities.
It’s interesting that this seems to be the first really critical and detailed science-related article the BBC have posted on the Government response to COVID. Why only now?
By Toby Young