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Whistleblowers reveal chaotic and ‘dangerous’ working conditions at lab behind Covid testing fiasco

Whistleblowers from a Covid lab that sent out thousands of incorrect test results across England have shed new light on the site’s chaotic working conditions, revealing how machines were poorly maintained, concerns over quality control dismissed and untrained staff regularly “left to their own devices”.

Samples at the privately run Wolverhampton lab, owned by Immensa Health Clinic, were wrongly processed or cross-contaminated, leading to incorrect test results, while faulty air conditioning and fluctuating humidity levels within the site also led to spoiled tests, one source said.

Another said that focus was placed on “quantity over quality”, with staff – many who had never worked in a lab before – under pressure from senior management officials to process as many tests as possible each day.

Under these conditions, small mistakes went unnoticed and were allowed to “add up”, one of the whistleblowers said, adding that “human error” is likely to be responsible for the majority of the 43,000 incorrect false negative tests that were processed for NHS Test and Trace between 8 September and 12 October.

Sources from both Dante Labs, the parent company of Immensa, and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) similarly told The Independent that human error – rather than technical failings – were to blame.

All operations at the lab have been suspended as UKHSA continues its investigation into the facilities at the University of Wolverhampton Science Park. However, it emerged this week that private travel tests are still being processed by Immensa and Dante Labs at their laboratory in Charnwood, Loughborough.

Dr Mark Atkins, from Micropathology Ltd, a leading UK laboratory serving more than 200 hospitals across the country, said the Wolverhampton lab was “dangerous” and, in non-Covid times, would have been shut down. “The government needs to take responsibility for this; it’s been handing out millions in contracts,” he added.

Immensa wolverhampton lab

© Getty Images Immensa wolverhampton lab

Immensa, which was only established in May 2020, has been awarded almost £170m of taxpayer’s money for Covid testing contracts throughout the pandemic. Other testing companies handed lucrative deals by the government have been hit by similar scandals over the past 18 months.

Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the claim that untrained staff were “left to their own devices” when preparing and processing samples was particularly concerning.

“I’ve done this technique, I’ve taught it to people,” he said. “It’s a very temperamental technique. It’s easy to get it wrong and get into a situation where it doesn’t work very well. You need proper guidance at first.”

One of the whistleblowers, who worked at the lab during the summer but has since left, said new recruits “weren’t really told what to do” and never given a training manual or programme to help them learn the techniques involved in processing tests.

Typically, samples are drawn from swabs that are sent to the lab and placed in tubes containing a solution of chemicals which will make multiple copies of the virus’ genetic material, if there is any present. The process requires tubes to be placed on a heating block that is the main part of the PCR machine. After that, the solution is tested for any genetic material.

The source said that 96 samples were processed during each “run”. Over one hour, employees were expected to carry out six runs, or almost 600 tests. “That’s quite a high throughput,” said Dr Clarke. “To do it accurately, I’d want 20 to 30 minutes for each run, with no distractions at all.” 

Reference: Independent: Samuel Lovett

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