A new coronavirus testing laboratory will be established at Cambridge University – but it might not be fully up and running until May.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock made the promise as part of a five-point strategy to ramp up testing across the country.
There has been criticism of government efforts to increase testing, amid disquiet that the UK is lagging behind other countries.
The Department of Health has announced new business consortium to rapidly develop new antibody tests, saying firms would “develop and roll out millions of coronavirus tests in the coming months”.
Pharmaceutical firms including AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will primarily focus on tests to identify whether people currently have the virus, known as antigen tests.
Cambridge University is working with AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline on its new facility, which aims to process 30,000 tests per day at its Anne McLaren Laboratory.
The university’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope said the facility aims to be “fully up and running” after the government’s target.
“We have a goal of, by the beginning of May, early May, having a facility that’s fully up and running and would be able to process roughly 30,000 tests a day,” Professor Toope told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That would go a long way towards meeting the government’s target of 100,000 a day.”
Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, told the same programme that his company carries out PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests “very regularly”.
“The challenge here is to bring this to a big scale and achieve 30,000 tests per day,” he explained.
“We believe we will start testing by mid-April and be at scale indeed with 30,000 tests per day by early May.”
Mr Soriot said the lab would begin with 1,000 to 2,000 tests per day by mid-April, then “ramp up progressively” to 30,000 tests in the first week of May.
Sharing a link to a story about the new laboratory on Twitter, Mr Hancock said he gave a “big welcome” to those setting it up “as part of our National Effort for testing”.
In a joint statement the university, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline said: “This facility will be used for high throughput screening for COVID-19 testing and to explore the use of alternative chemical reagents for test kits in order to help overcome current supply shortages.
“Alongside this new testing facility, AstraZeneca and GSK are working together to provide process optimisation support to the UK national testing centres in Milton Keynes, Alderley Park and Glasgow for COVID-19, providing expertise in automation and robotics to help the national testing system to continue to expand capacity over the coming weeks.
“While diagnostic testing is not part of either company’s core business, we are moving as fast as we can to help where possible – with a focus on providing our world-class scientific and technical expertise – working both with the government’s screening programme and alongside the wider life sciences sector and specialist diagnostic companies.”
Further updates would be provided in due course, they said.
“We continue to pay tribute to those working on the front lines of this pandemic, in the UK and globally,” the joint statement added.
“Defeating COVID-19 requires a collective effort from everyone working in healthcare and we are committed to playing our part.”
Meanwhile, it has been claimed that a lack of blood samples from patients who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus is hampering efforts to validate antibody tests.
Public Health England (PHE) has only a small number of positive blood samples for screening antibody tests to see if they work, while the Department of Health is endeavouring to set up a blood bank.
PHE says that part of the problem is that it takes time for an immune response to develop, meaning blood from those who have suffered from the virus is only just reaching the maturity needed for use in antibody tests.
But some private labs have said their attempts to validate tests that can be used by frontline staff and the public at large are being hampered by PHE not sharing the samples it does have.
PHE medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said: “The government wants as many labs as possible to support the scaling up of the UK’s testing capacity and any commercial companies that can help should contact the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
“PHE has only a very small number of positive blood samples.
“It takes time for an immune response to develop; for most people infected in the UK, this will have been in the past six weeks and so their blood is only now reaching maturity to be used in this capacity.
“A blood bank will be developed that companies can use to validate their technology.”