The Covid test analysis centre set up at the start of the pandemic in Cambridge by the University of Cambridge, GlaxoSmithKline, and AstraZeneca has shut this week as originally planned.
The Cambridge Covid-19 Test Centre, at the University of Cambridge’s Anne McLaren Building, was one of the Lighthouse Laboratories set up across the country to meet the demand for PCR tests at the beginning of the pandemic.
It has processed more than three million tests since March 2020. It analysed swabs from the university’s own testing regime for staff and students, as well as the NHS test and trace programme.
It will now shut down and the building will return to its original purpose as a biomedical research facility as the contract withthe UK government has come to an end.
Testing for asymptomatic is now contracted out to a private company, Excalibur Healthcare Services, as of Monday (April 26) and testing for symptomatic staff and students will be analysed at the Public Health England labs at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
It is not clear how much the national testing programme relies on the Cambridge Lighthouse Laboratory. The Department for Health and Social Care was asked about the number of national tests processed weekly in the now-shut lab.
A spokesperson said the DHSC was continuously reviewing laboratory requirements as the pandemic progresses.
They added that there are new laboratories in Baltic Park, Newcastle; Brant’s Bridge, Berkshire; and Plymouth that have opened over the past few months, although an unspecified number are closing now as the government contracts end in spring.
Excalibur, the university’s contractor, said it would maintain a “comprehensive and highly accurate” regime and would be able to pinpoint outbreaks to specific student groups on campus or in private accommodation.
It will perform sample analysis on a daily basis, covering the weekly screening of up to 15,000 students in halls and 5,000 in private accommodation, at its laboratory at the Cambridge Science Park.
The contractor said it would be able to save costs by using a “direct to PCR method” to create a “significantly more rapid process by avoiding the requirement for RNA extraction, thereby reducing costs and protecting the integrity of the underlying sample”.
A university spokesperson explained: “The University of Cambridge has appointed Excalibur as its principal provider of PCR analysis for Covid-19 samples as part of its Asymptomatic Covid-19 Screening Programme for students.
“This follows the return of the Anne McLaren Building, previously the location of the Cambridge Lighthouse laboratory, to its original purpose as a biomedical research facility.
“We are confident that there will be no disruption to the speed or accuracy of the testing.”
Under its own testing regime, the university is testing households of students together.
It tests all its students on a weekly basis, regardless of whether they have symptoms.
In the first term, it only offered this to those in halls, but as of last term, this includes those in private accommodation too.
In one household, all eight to ten students are swabbed separately, but these are pooled together and tested as one to limit the strain on laboratories.
If a pool is found to be positive, all members of the household provide individual swabs, to identify the person or people with infection.
This reduces the number of weekly tests needed to just a few thousand for the 20,000 students.
Last term, the university screened around 1,800 pooled samples per week.
Students and staff with symptoms can get tests with any clinically significant symptoms, including a runny nose and other minor symptoms that would mean they are not usually eligible through the national testing programme. These swabs would be analysed by Public Health England labs, not Excalibur’s.
Excalibur said it had adopted “identical safeguards” for the security of personal identifiable information to those used by the university and the Cambridge Lighthouse laboratory.
Professor Sir Christopher Evans, chairman and chief executive officer of Excalibur, said: “Excalibur has a strong heritage in Cambridge dating to the 1980s and 1990s when I founded some of the first biotech companies in Britain and we are delighted to be appointed by the university for this important testing work.
“Our laboratory in Cambridge provides PCR analysis to the highest international standards. We look forward to ensuring the seamless continuity of service to protect university staff and students and the wider local community.”
Professor Andy Neely, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for enterprise and business relations, said: “We look forward to working with the professional team at Excalibur. Our partnership will be important in helping us maintain the highest standards of protection for our students, staff and members of the local community with whom they come into contact.
The university’s testing regime found just three cases since March 1, indicating that the cases are primarily among non-university linked residents.
University analysis of the genetic ‘family tree’ of positive Covid cases among students found that the spread of the virus has largely been contained within the student population.
A virus mutates slightly between each transmission, so by comparing the genes of each virus caught in the autumn term, researchers found “little evidence” of substantial transmission of the virus between students and the Cambridge community.