Britain’s COVID-19 testing system, already struggling with a surge in new cases, was facing more disruption on Wednesday after Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche said problems at a new warehouse had delayed the dispatch of some products.
Roche is one of the main suppliers of diagnostic tests to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) test and trace programme, which only days ago was hit by a technical glitch that delayed the reporting of 15,000 positive results.
The Swiss company said in a letter to UK customers that a switch from an old warehouse to a new distribution centre had caused unforeseen issues, leading to “a very significant drop in our processing capacity” that it was unable to fix immediately.
The timing of Roche’s problems could hardly be worse for Britain as new coronavirus infections surge. Experts said the disruption was also affecting diabetes tests, magnesium level tests and other diagnostic materials.
Allan Wilson, Head of the Institute of Biomedical Science, said Roche and NHS staff were working very hard to plug urgent gaps, including by driving around the country to distribute supplies manually, but that would not be tenable for long.
“We can only do that for a few days before it really starts to impact on our ability to do diagnostic tests,” he said.
In its letter, Roche said the situation would improve in the coming days “and we are confident that we will see large step changes in the coming weeks”.
“The current backlog is likely to temporarily affect and disrupt services and, unfortunately, at this stage we may not be able to provide a solution to avoid such a temporary disruption,” it said in the letter seen by Reuters.
“Our customers’ contingency plans may need to be activated and we are working with them to help this happen.”
Wilson said signs of the problems had emerged last week and scheduled deliveries of certain products had not taken place, leading some hospitals and laboratories to ration test kits.
“The frustration is that they seem to have a warehouse full of consumables but are unable to ship them because the logistics system put in place to manage the extraction and identification of consumables and picking them to send them to customers has failed,” Wilson told Reuters in a telephone interview.
He said supplies for blood gas analysers had been affected, which could turn into a significant issue as they were crucial for the treatment of patients with respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.
Roche said it was prioritising COVID-19 tests as it worked to fix the problems.
“We are prioritising the dispatch of COVID-19 PCR and antibody tests and doing everything we can to ensure there is no impact on the supply of these to the NHS,” the company said in a statement.
The BBC quoted Tom Lewis, lead clinician for pathology at North Devon District Hospital in southwest England, as saying that his hospital had sent out instructions that non-urgent blood tests in the community should be stopped.
Lewis said that without rationing, the hospital risked running out of swabs in three to four days.