Experts raise concerns over negative test results in Operation Moonshot

The Government’s ambitious plans for mass testing under the so-called Operation Moonshot has been met with mixed reaction from the health and scientific community, with concerns raised over the implications of a negative test result.

Boris Johnson set out plans for millions of coronavirus tests to be carried out every day as a route back to a more normal life.

“In the near future we hope to start using testing to identify people who are negative, who don’t have coronavirus, who are not infectious. So we can allow them to behave in a more normal way in the knowledge they can’t infect anyone else with the virus,” the Prime Minister said at a Downing Street press briefing on Wednesday.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), said it is unclear how Operation Moonshot would work given the “huge problems” currently seen with lab capacity.

“And the notion of opening up society based on negative tests of those without symptoms needs to be approached with caution – both because of the high rate of ‘false negatives’ and the potential to miss those who are incubating the virus,” Dr Nagpaul added.

Professor Jose Vazquez-Boland, chair of infectious diseases, University of Edinburgh, said: “The focus of testing currently remains on confirmation of suspected cases (people with symptoms), thus missing the point that most community transmission comes from those who are asymptomatic.

“Only a mass screening programme, such as this alternative plan announced by the Prime Minister, which involves the regular testing of all the population for asymptomatic transmitters, can keep Covid-19 under control and eventually lead to its eradication.”

Dr Joshua Moon, research fellow in the Science Research Policy Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex Business School, raised concerns about the plans.

He said: “A negative result could be that the individual is truly negative and therefore not infectious, or it could be that the individual is infected but early in the incubation period so isn’t testing positive yet, or it could be that the test itself didn’t capture enough viral material on the swab or saliva to test positive.

“In only one of these cases should the person be moving around as normal.”

Dr David Strain, clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and chair of the BMA’s medical academic staff committee, said: “The mass-testing strategy is fundamentally flawed, in that it is being based on technology that does not, as yet, exist.

“The Prime Minister’s suggestion that this will be as simple as “getting a pregnancy test” that will give results within 15 minutes is unlikely, if not impossible, in the timescale he was suggesting to get the country back on track.

“The worry is that comments such as these may undermine the credibility of some of the other very responsible measures that were announced, notably the halting of the larger social gatherings, delaying the reopening of large venues and moving the ‘rule of six’ from guidance to law.”

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