Downing Street has played down the impact of pharmaceutical giant Roche’s supply chain problems on Covid-19 testing after concerns about shortages of materials used in tests were raised.
On Tuesday, Roche said it had experienced a “very significant drop” in its processing capacity due to a problem with its Sussex distribution centre, its only one in the UK.
This raised alarms over the supply of laboratory materials such as reagents for diagnostic tests, screening kits and swabs used for a range of conditions, including Covid-19 testing.
Roche warned customers the issues may not be resolved for two to three weeks, but said it is prioritising the dispatch of Covid-19 and antibody tests.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Roche alerted DHSC (the Department of Health and Social Care) yesterday to an issue with their supply chain and they are working to resolve this urgently.
“It is expected to have little to no impact on Covid testing and Roche are already prioritising the dispatch of tests to ensure uninterrupted supplies.
“Measures are also being put in place to ensure that other NHS supplies can continue and Roche have extended their working hours and recruited extra staff so they can return to normal as quickly as possible.”
It is understood that Roche provides an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 swab tests a day out of the overall capacity of around 300,000.
However, concerns remain over the supply of components for other tests, including those used in the treatment of Covid-19 and cancer.
Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), said the majority of conditions require a type of diagnostic test, including blood or urine tests, and routine tests were likely to be delayed.
He told the PA news agency: “It’s a huge range of things they do on these platforms, liver function tests, glucose tests for diabetics, urea and urines.
“It has the potential to impact hugely on our ability to do diagnostic testing and thereby care for patients if this is not resolved in a short space of time.”
Although Covid-19 tests are not expected to be affected, Mr Wilson said tests used in the treatment of the virus could be.
He said: “I’ve been contacted by one lab that’s saying they’re running out of consumables to do what we call blood gases, on a blood gas analyser.
“That’s really critical because that’s what we need to treat and monitor people with Covid – it’s a measure of respiratory function and used heavily in people with respiratory conditions and Roche are heavily involved in supplying kits and the consumables for doing blood gas tests.”
Mr Wilson also raised the need for tests when treating some types of cancer, which may also be affected by the problem.
He added: “We use antibodies in the labs to look for proteins in certain cancers and the presence or absence of those antibodies determines the patient’s treatment for that cancer as it allows us to type the cancer and typing determines treatment.
“We are running very low across the country, no lab keeps high stocks of that type of consumable.”
Mr Wilson said the high volumes of materials used means laboratories were unlikely to have sizable stocks of these chemicals and materials in-house and that Roche was a significant player in the UK market.
He said: “If this problem is going to be a matter of days that’s fine, we can probably manage that, but if it’s going to be weeks, I think that does give me concern that we could potentially begin to really have some problems delivering diagnostic tests within the UK.”
In a letter seen by PA, Roche said the problem was caused during a move to a new automated warehouse in September.
The company told customers to activate their local contingency plans “and recommend that you look to prioritise essential services only”.
The Government has urged people who need coronavirus tests to continue to seek them despite the issue.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News: “There is an issue with the supply chain. Roche are working with the NHS, the Health Secretary is fully aware.
“I would encourage people to continue going through the testing process – that process is still working.”
She added: “Roche are pushing very hard to resolve that issue… as soon as possible.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Roche has alerted hospitals to an issue with their supply chain, and they will be working urgently to resolve this issue.”
A Roche spokesperson said: “We deeply regret that there has been a delay in the dispatch of some products and apologise to any of our customers who have been impacted.
“As well as extending working hours, we have recruited extra staff and, where they can, our dedicated teams on the ground are working with customers to distribute products and minimise service disruption.
“We will continue to provide regular updates to our customers and we are doing everything possible to return to routine operations.”