A feature in children’s science magazine How It Works has inadvertently shone a light on the wholly inadequate standards in the PCR testing “megalab” in the spring. Among the accidental revelations of the interview with two lab workers, Beth Cole and Ben Galley, is that the quality control was so poor that the error rate was estimated to be around 30%.
A Lockdown Sceptics reader has summarised the key points.
1) Long 12 hour shifts with inadequate breaks.
2) Adverse regimental discipline of time management that gravitated into bullying.
3) No Health and Safety training for a BSL2 facility as well as no induction in biohazards and the biology of contagion with a focus on SARS-CoV-2.
4) New starters rushed into a BSL2/3 environment in the absence of scrutiny of CVs/clinical assessment by an occupational health physician (e.g. personnel of unknown health/immunisation status/no determination of Hepatitis B immunisation status/no suggestion of or opportunity for Hepatitis B Vaccination).
5) Haphazard on-the-job-training by individuals with unknown expertise.
6) Recruitment of personnel with no proper assessment even of the most rudimentary skills for a biosecure laboratory.
7) PCR test error rate ~30%. Beth says: “I don’t know the percentage error at the moment, but when I was there I think it was a 30% error rate. That’s fairly high, but you have to remember that, in normal science, you do everything at least three times, whereas there you have one go at it. I do PCR tests a lot, and the threshold would usually be pretty high. But, in this circumstance it was low (i.e., high Cts) because they wanted to account for any detection of the virus. There are a lot of factors that can influence a test and I think when you do a test you should take it with a pinch of salt. You should definitely question a negative result if you know you have symptoms.” With high Cts to pick up any viral fragments you should also question a positive result, even with retesting.
What does this mean for the people working in the COVID-19 lab? Well, after each rack of 94 sample tubes have been processed, these tubes still containing unactivated biohazardous material (and now potentially contaminating the outside surface of almost every tube) are transferred in a plastic bag with a knot tied in it to a four degrees C cold room. Then, when a spurious COVID-19 test result comes back flagged by a biomedical scientist (safely cocooned in a positive-pressure room where the PCR machines inhabit), those at the sharp end have to go into the cold room and open up the plastic bags to fish around for the biosample tubes that need to be re-tested.
According to Beth this occurred 30% of the time – 30 out of every 100 samples. To venture into the cold room to perform this function is a really dangerous operation as the sealed plastic bags are like mini humidifying chambers, so when the bags are opened the aerosolised contents are released into the enclosed environment of the cold room. Therefore, air in the room over time will become contaminated with increasing concentrations of these aerosols, making just entry into this cold room very risky even if you don’t open any bags.
8) Threshold for detection was low (i.e., high Cts) as they wanted to account for the detection of any virus. This means the detection of signals in the samples being defined as positive when in fact they could be artefactual or due to cross-contamination between samples, or even picking up contaminants in the facility environment including personnel i.e., false positives.
9) Beth says: “There was no PPE a lot of the time when we were all together… There was less focus on social distance (and safety)” (and more focus on productivity). “I was surprised how little thinking I was required to do. I remember thinking ‘what if I don’t know enough?’ and ‘what if I’m completely out of my depth? But we just had to use manpower.”
This is completely unacceptable to put anybody in a situation where their instincts tell them they are operating in a very dangerous environment, but they are forced to carry on by people with little concern for the safety of their employees.
10) Ben says: “The application said that you would need a lot of experience, but I met one person who started who was a college student, and she didn’t even know how to pipette. That’s no insult to her, because I didn’t know how to pipette when I was a college student, but you don’t expect college students to be in a diagnostic laboratory working on the coronavirus. It was startling.”
This is a clear demonstration of the high incompetence of the UK Biocentre, Oxford University and the recruiters – REED. What these organisations have done is recruit individuals with no experience/qualifications whatsoever and have thrown them into a very dangerous setting, namely handling and processing biosamples containing potentially highly infectious dangerous contagion.
Read the full interview here.