A mistake at a lab that reported thousands of positive Covid-19 cases as negative could have resulted in the deaths of 20 people, new estimates say.
The error at Wolverhampton’s lab meant around 39,000 PCR tests – mostly in south-west England – were reported as negative between September 2 and October 12, 2021, when they should have been positive.
As a result, many people would have continued with their daily lives and not self-isolated despite having Covid.
Experts at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have estimated the bug has resulted in around 55,000 extra infections.
They estimated that for every person who received a false negative result, they infected around two other people on average – although some would have continued to take measures to reduce the spread of the infection.
The researchers also estimated that there were about 680 additional hospitalizations “that otherwise might not have occurred.”
“Similarly, we estimate that there may have been just over 20 additional deaths in these hardest-hit areas,” they added.
“Personnel errors were the direct cause of erroneous reports”
NHS Test and Trace suspended testing operations carried out by Immensa Health Clinic Ltd at its Wolverhampton laboratory in October 2021 following reports of inaccurate results.
An investigation into the error conducted by the UKHSA found that the error occurred because staff at the laboratory incorrectly set the thresholds for reporting positive and negative results.
Richard Gleave, Director and Lead Investigator at the UKHSA, said: “As part of this inquiry we have carefully examined the arrangements in place to monitor the contracts of private laboratories offering surge testing during this period.
“We have concluded that staff errors at Immensa’s laboratory in Wolverhampton were the direct cause of the misreporting of Covid-19 PCR test results in September and October 2021.
“In our view there was not a single action that NHS Test and Trace could have otherwise taken to prevent this error from occurring in the private laboratory.
“However, our report provides clear recommendations to both reduce the risk of incidents like this happening again and ensure concerns are addressed and investigated quickly.”
“UKHSA is committed to being transparent”
UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said: “UKHSA strives to be a transparent, learning organization and that means looking into where things have gone wrong and identifying how things can be improved.
“I fully accept the findings and recommendations in this report, many of which were implemented as soon as the UKHSA discovered the incident.
“These ongoing improvements will increase our ability to spot problems earlier, where they occur.
“We are particularly keen to continue to improve our collaboration with local partners and public health directors as such incidents develop rapidly.”
The Government awarded Immensa a £119million contract in October 2020 to urgently “develop a volume for PCR testing for Covid in accordance with testing and tracing requirements”, the contract reveals.
The contract was not tendered under rules that allow for urgent responses to the pandemic.
A further £50m has been awarded to Immensa by the Government for additional PCR testing.
Immensa has been asked for comment.