UK megalab opens to process hundreds of thousands of Covid tests and identify new variants

Officials hope facility will help to detect new virus threats and prevent another national lockdown

Coronavirus in numbers

The UK’s first testing megalab - which will process hundreds of thousands of Covid-19 samples every day - has opened as the “centrepiece” of the country’s future test and trace infrastructure, the government has said.

The new Rosalind Franklin laboratory in Royal Leamington Spa will play a role in responding to new Covid variants of concern and future disease threats as part of plans to prevent another national lockdown.

The facility is named after the British scientist who played a key role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and in pioneering the use of X-ray diffraction.

It is hoped that the lab will become a key tool for the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) in the next stage of the pandemic, with “cutting-edge technology” being used to quickly identify new mutations of Covid-19.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said in a statement that “trailblazing technologies” would be pivotal to helping the UK to stay ahead of new and emerging virus threats.

“This Laboratory will be one of the centrepieces of our efforts to manage this virus in the future, processing hundreds of thousands of positive Covid-19 tests a day to help us stop cases becoming outbreaks,” Mr Javid said.

Chief executive of the UKHSA Dr Jenny Harries added that officials wanted to learn lessons from the Covid pandemic in order to protect against threats in the future.

“The pandemic has provided us with clear evidence, on a daily basis, that you can only challenge viruses of this kind with the right testing and genomics infrastructure in place,” Dr Harries said.

“The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory is going to be a critical scientific addition to how we manage this virus in the months ahead, arming us with data and intelligence on the spread of variants that will inform decision-making and ultimately, save lives.”

The opening comes at a time of growing concern over the UK government’s plan to further reopen society on 19 July by removing legal Covid restrictions.

Some experts fear that allowing cases to rise to record levels over the coming weeks will create a breeding ground for new potentially vaccine-resistant variants.

While confirming the unlocking date, Boris Johnson told a Downing Street briefing on Monday that the public should “proceed now with caution” as he stressed that the pandemic was not yet over.

“This disease, coronavirus, continues to carry risks for you and your family,” Mr Johnson said. “We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday 19 July to life as it was before Covid.”

The prime minister added that the use of domestic vaccine passports and face masks would be encouraged in crowded and enclosed spaces going forward, but these measures will not be legal requirements.

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