Britain has turned to Portugal for a mass screening Covid-19 test that can prevent the spread of the disease and help reduce the death rate despite the UK banning travel to the country.
British officials have met with the Portuguese scientists at the Algarve biomedical centre which has developed a method of testing ten times as many people for a fifth of the price using the same laboratory equipment as now.
It means potential outbreaks in the population and asymptomatic carriers can be detected far earlier than at present for a fraction of the price, enabling public health officials to start shielding the vulnerable far quicker.
Research by European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows that countries like Portugal that use such mass-screening techniques with high rates of negative tests have lower death rates than countries like the UK that do not.
“It is cheaper, it is quicker and it is very safe,” said Nuno Marques, head of the Algarve biomedical centre that developed the system already in use in countries including Germany, Spain and Poland.
“If you don’t know where the cases are, you need to test. If you identify them, you avoid the spread of the disease and you can reduce the risks to those people who are at higher risk.
“It is the asymptomatic patients, generally the younger ones who can spread the diseases. This is the right way and only way to do it. We know we are doing something that makes the country safer for everyone.”
The technique that Mr Marques and his team of scientists have developed is to analyse ten pooled test swab results simultaneously and not lose any of the accuracy or sensitivity from doing just one.
It does not require any additional laboratory capacity and uses the same 100 per cent accurate PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests deployed by scientists and healthcare professionals around the world.
The pooling system raises a laboratory’s testing capacity from 1,000 results a day to 10,000. That, means 10 days’ of tests can be done in one, according to the data from the biomedical centre, which is part of the University of the Algarve. The cost per sample is also cut from 10 Euros to two Euros.
Mr Marques said the system was particularly effective when Covid-19 incidence had declined and there were high rates negative results. “We can identify patients and in that way we can make sure we don’t have cases in the population circulating freely,” he said.
It is not an effective strategy when there are high rates of Covid-19 because a positive result among the pooled ten samples means scientists have to go back and re-test each of them to identify which of them is the individual who has the disease.
Mass testing was adopted by Portugal from the start of the pandemic. It is among the top ten countries in the world for testing per capita..
Officials and scientists from the UK Science and Innovation Network met with Mr Marques and his team last month.
“They told us they want to implement the tests in the UK. That is the way to do it without spending a lot of money or buying new instruments to do it,” he said.
He said it was “not a good decision” by Britain to continue to advise against travel to Portugal and refuse to lift the 14 day quarantine as the mass-testing methods being used by the Portuguese made the country safer for visitors.
“It is safer to go to a country that is testing, identifying and isolating the cases than a country that is not and we are doing that very quickly in Portugal,” said Mr Marques.
A Government spokesman confirmed the meeting but was unable to say how the UK had progressed the breakthrough.