Cross-Contamination

How Has One of the U.K.’s Biggest Covid Testing Labs – Exposed by Panorama as Ignoring Protocols Designed to Prevent Cross-Contamination – Been Given a Clean Bill of Health?

by Jacinta Taylor

One of the U.K.’s biggest Covid testing labs, where shocking evidence of potential contamination was revealed by undercover filming, has been given a clean bill of health by a Government recognised inspector.

Secret filming by the BBC’s Panorama programme at the U.K. Biocentre in Milton Keynes last March showed staff cutting corners and processing samples in such a way that may cause cross-contamination – meaning some people who had taken a test via NHS Test and Trace could have received the wrong result.

But questions remain after it emerged that an accreditation inspection of the Milton Keynes facility was carried out in November 2020 – a good two months before Panorama began its undercover filming.

Worryingly, it is entirely possible the ‘witnessing’ element – a key component of the accreditation process – may have been conducted via a video link and not in person because of Covid restrictions.

The Panorama programme was filmed in January and February 2021 and caused many experts and members of the public to question the way the lab operates and the accuracy of the 70,000 Covid test results it is capable of processing each day.

It followed earlier allegations of poor working practices at the Milton Keynes establishment witnessed by virologist Dr. Julian Harris while he worked there processing coronavirus swab samples in the summer of 2020. (See this article by Dr. Harris for Lockdown Sceptics published last November.) Dr. Harris called in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after highlighting poor safety protocols, a lack of suitable PPE and overcrowded biosecure workspaces. The HSE found five material breaches of health and safety legislation but no improvement notice was issued. Dr. Harris said he was “traumatised” and “freaked out” by seeing inexperienced colleagues unaware of the hazards they were dealing with.

Such was the public alarm at the Panorama revelations that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was prompted to issue a statement promising: “We take concerns extremely seriously and we will be fully investigating all the allegations that have been made.”

But exactly what form the investigations took and who undertook it remains unclear. The U.K. Accreditation Service (UKAS), an independent company which “checks the checkers” and which is recognised by the Government, confirmed that since March 2020, much of its “witnessing” has been carried out remotely although it had adopted a more “blended” approach since restrictions were lifted.

UKAS issued the lab with a Certificate of Accreditation on June 10th of this year. A spokesman said: “UKAS is unable to go into details on individual assessments, including any witnessing arrangements, beyond saying that testing would have been witnessed (either remotely or in-person) as part of the assessment accreditation process.”

The Daily Sceptic asked me, an experienced freelance investigative journalist, to find out what the outcomes of the DHSC investigations were.

It’s fair to say that the DHSC dragged its heels over giving an answer to the straightforward questions I asked about the outcome of its investigations into the concerns raised both by Panorama and Dr. Harris.

Of Dr. Harris, the DHSC would only say that it “does not comment on individual cases”. Even Dr. Harris himself has had some difficulty getting a straight response. “I’ve been pushed from pillar to post trying to find out what action they have taken in relation to the concerns I raised,” he said.

The initial response was a bland statement from the DHSC in which it said:

The Government demands the highest standards to be upheld by all the laboratories in our network, and robust quality controls and safety procedures are in place at all sites. Regular inspections are carried out to ensure these robust protocols are being adhered to. The Milton Keynes lab was inspected by the UKAS in November 2020 and was recommended for an accreditation which recognises international standards for quality and competence.

When repeated requests for more information were ignored, I contacted the Chief Media Relations Officer for NHS Test and Trace only to be told: “I’m afraid you’ll need to get in touch with the public enquiries team for DHSC, as we only handle press enquiries.” It was only after I persisted again and again for more clarity that a further statement came from another senior media relations officer within the DHSC. This time the statement said:

The Panorama programme was aired in March 2020 and in following reviews of the Milton Keynes lab in April 2021 DHSC is satisfied that the appropriate standards, quality controls and safety procedures continue to be maintained within the laboratory. The Milton Keynes lab was inspected by the UKAS in November 2020. In June 2021 this year, the lab received UKAS ISO15189 accreditation which is the international standard for quality and competence in medical labs.

The DHSC did not elaborate on who conducted the reviews of the lab in April 2021 or on the findings.

During the Panorama programme, a reporter working undercover as a technician at the lab filmed staff cutting corners and processing samples in such a way that risked cross-contamination, meaning negative samples could be contaminated by positive samples, thereby leading to false positive results. Evidence captured on film showed contamination risks where some test samples “glooped” across an area where other samples had been placed, checks to ensure samples could be identified were rushed (meaning tests were sometimes discarded unnecessarily) and Covid test swabs were left in their tubes when processed presenting a further contamination risk. Disturbingly, the reporter was told by a quality control scientist that the quality of the results became progressively worse throughout the day.

In its defence, the lab said it had followed all necessary rules and regulations.

Jacinta Taylor is a freelance investigative journalist.

Panorama “Breaks” Story on Cross-Contamination in Lighthouse Lab Covered by Lockdown Sceptics Last November

Better late than never I suppose. Tonight’s episode of PanoramaUndercover: Inside the Covid Testing Lab – reveals that staff at the Lighthouse Lab in Milton Keynes have been cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could lead to cross-contamination between test samples. Readers will recall that Lockdown Sceptics published an expose of the very same lab – “Heath and Safety Breaches at the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab” – by an ex-member of staff in November of last year. BBC News has more.

A BBC reporter working as a lab technician, filmed staff cutting corners and processing samples in a way that could cause contamination.

This means some people who had taken a test via NHS Test and Trace may have received no result or a wrong result.

The lab said it had followed all necessary rules and regulations.

Evidence at the lab captured on film shows:

* Checks to ensure samples could be identified, were rushed, meaning tests were sometimes discarded unnecessarily

* Some test samples “glooped” across an area where other samples had been placed, risking contamination

* Swabs used by people to take Covid tests were left in their tubes when processed, presenting a further contamination risk

* A quality control scientist telling the reporter that the quality of the results progressively got worse throughout the day

The findings have led experts to question the way the lab was operating.

The story on BBC News uses the phrase “potential contamination”, but, incredibly, does not use the phrase “false positives”, as if the contamination could be in both directions, with some positive becoming false negatives after being contaminated with material from negative test swabs. Obviously, that isn’t possible. The contamination is all in one direction – negative samples being contaminated with material from positive swabs, thereby becoming false positives.

What this Panorama story tells us is that the number of cases reported by PHE in England during the pandemic, which is partly based on the findings of Lighthouse Labs like the one in Milton Keynes, has been inflated thanks to cross-contamination in the labs.

The BBC story is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Dr Martin Evison, a retired Professor of Forensic and Biological Anthropology and occasional contributor to Lockdown Sceptics, has been in touch to comment on the BBC News story.

I don’t suppose this ‘news’ from the BBC will come as news to anyone who has worked on the PCR analysis of trace samples. It is exactly what one would expect from rushed high volume mass testing with limited and secretive verification.

The BBC article still hasn’t mentioned a key issue in relation to contamination – that is, the use of negative ‘blank’ controls. These should be included at key points in RNA extraction and analysis to establish that purification and PCR steps, test plates, manual or automated liquid handling and so on are free of intrusive SARS-CoV-2 RNA or derived DNA contamination. Blanks should be run regularly to measure background contamination in the laboratory or production line.

I made a futile attempt to find out what controls were being used via an FOI request some months ago, but didn’t get very far.

Judging by the article, it seems a decision was made just to accept an unknown amount of contamination for the sake of throughput in a way that would be unacceptable in forensic work, for example.

It does leave one wondering how much SARS-CoV-2 infection is really circulating when the positive test levels drop to their minimum and whether contamination could also be contributing to mis-classification of non-covid fatalities.

It’s interesting that this seems to be the first really critical and detailed science-related article the BBC have posted on the Government response to COVID. Why only now?