Downing Street plays down impact of Roche supply chain issue on Covid testing
Downing Street has played down the impact of pharmaceutical giant Roche’s supply chain problems on Covid-19 testing after concerns about shortages of materials used in tests were raised.
On Tuesday, Roche said it had experienced a “very significant drop” in its processing capacity due to a technical problem with its automated Sussex distribution centre, its only one in the UK.
This raised alarms over the supply of laboratory materials such as reagents for diagnostic tests, screening kits and swabs used for a range of conditions, including Covid-19 testing.
Roche warned customers the issues may not be resolved for two to three weeks, but later said they should see “significant improvements by the weekend”.
The company added it has not and will not affect the supply of Covid-19 tests.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Roche alerted DHSC (the Department of Health and Social Care) yesterday to an issue with their supply chain and they are working to resolve this urgently.
“It is expected to have little to no impact on Covid testing and Roche are already prioritising the dispatch of tests to ensure uninterrupted supplies.
“Measures are also being put in place to ensure that other NHS supplies can continue and Roche have extended their working hours and recruited extra staff so they can return to normal as quickly as possible.”
It is understood that Roche provides an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 swab tests a day out of the overall capacity of around 300,000.
However, concerns remain over the supply of components for other tests, including those used in the treatment of Covid-19 and cancer.
Allan Wilson, president of the Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS), said the majority of conditions require a type of diagnostic test, including blood or urine tests, and routine tests were likely to be delayed.
He told the PA news agency: “It’s a huge range of things they do on these platforms, liver function tests, glucose tests for diabetics, urea and urines.
“It has the potential to impact hugely on our ability to do diagnostic testing and thereby care for patients if this is not resolved in a short space of time.”
Although Covid-19 tests are not expected to be affected, Mr Wilson said tests used in the treatment of the virus could be.
He said: “I’ve been contacted by one lab that’s saying they’re running out of consumables to do what we call blood gases, on a blood gas analyser.
“That’s really critical because that’s what we need to treat and monitor people with Covid – it’s a measure of respiratory function and used heavily in people with respiratory conditions and Roche are heavily involved in supplying kits and the consumables for doing blood gas tests.”
Mr Wilson also raised the need for tests when treating some types of cancer, which may also be affected by the problem.
He added: “We use antibodies in the labs to look for proteins in certain cancers and the presence or absence of those antibodies determines the patient’s treatment for that cancer as it allows us to type the cancer and typing determines treatment.
“We are running very low across the country, no lab keeps high stocks of that type of consumable.”
Mr Wilson said the high volumes of materials used means laboratories were unlikely to have sizable stocks of these chemicals and materials in-house and that Roche was a significant player in the UK market.
He said: “If this problem is going to be a matter of days that’s fine, we can probably manage that, but if it’s going to be weeks, I think that does give me concern that we could potentially begin to really have some problems delivering diagnostic tests within the UK.”
Professor Xiaojun Wang, professor of operations management at the University of Bristol, said the problems could still have a significant impact on Covid-19 testing.
I would encourage people to continue going through the testing process - that process is still working
He said: “Although we haven’t seen any evidence of a drop in testing capacity and tests processed in the recent Government daily updates, the next few days’ test figures need to be closely watched to assess its real impact.
“It certainly adds more difficulty in achieving the UK’s daily testing capacity to 500,000 by the end of October.”
In a letter seen by PA, Roche said the problem was caused during a move to a new automated warehouse in September.
The company also told customers to activate their local contingency plans “and recommend that you look to prioritise essential services only”.
The Government has urged people who need coronavirus tests to continue to seek them despite the issue.
International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News: “There is an issue with the supply chain. Roche are working with the NHS, the Health Secretary is fully aware.
“I would encourage people to continue going through the testing process – that process is still working.”
She added: “Roche are pushing very hard to resolve that issue… as soon as possible.”
An NHS spokesperson said: “Roche has alerted hospitals to an issue with their supply chain, and they will be working urgently to resolve this issue.”
A Roche spokesperson said: “We have been in contact with all impacted UK and Ireland customers and are working closely with the NHS in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the HSE in Ireland, to minimise the impact on critical services which rely on our products – including cancer, cardiac and infectious diseases.
“We are confident that the plans we have put in place will deliver significant improvements by the weekend to the supply of the tests affected by these logistical issues.
“We will be well on the way to resolution by the end of next week.”