Two years of mass Covid testing have paved the way for a revolution in how we diagnose other diseases, the founding director of the Lighthouse labs network has said.
In his first interview since the pandemic began, Prof Chris Molloy said that people’s familiarity with using swabs for Covid tests meant that they could also discover and monitor their risk of other conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
On 1 April, the government ended free Covid tests for most people as part of what ministers describe as a “living with Covid” strategy, which has seen much of the Covid surveillance and research system dismantled.
The national research studies and England’s NHS test and trace system relied on seven Lighthouse labs to process most of the 207m free PCR tests done during the pandemic in the UK.
Molloy led the team setting up the network, which was created after the previous public health laboratory system had faced a series of cuts by successive governments.
Now most are being shut down, leaving the Rosalind Franklin lab in Leamington Spa as the main facility in England, and more than 1,000 scientists and technicians looking for other jobs. Molloy expressed some disappointment that the other labs were not being repurposed. “One of the things we hoped was to be able to create a foundation for the UK diagnostics sector,” he said, adding that he had once hoped the labs themselves might continue.
“But it may be that the biggest foundation we’ve actually created is the thousands of high-quality staff who’ve been trained in extraordinarily high-quality science, who are now filtering across the nation.”
There is an opportunity to create another legacy for the Lighthouse labs and the testing system, Molloy said.”The population has been schooled in ordering a test online, getting it through the post, doing it in the home, popping it back in the post , getting a result on their phone, and most importantly changing their behavior as a result.”
Having lab capacity and smart diagnostics could help tackle chronic ill-health, he said. One in three adults in the UK have a long-term condition such as kidney disease, heart failure or diabetes, and having two chronic health problems in middle age may double the risk of dementia.
“If you really want to address multi-morbidities and diseases associated with ageing, you start with people in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” Molloy said. “Not with older people, when you’re playing clinical whack-a-mole.
“This is not Beveridge 1.0, which was the establishment delivering for the populace. This is Beveridge 2.0, where the populace can engage in their own health and use smart diagnostics in the home or the high street to start to understand their own health at a time when you actually may be able to do something to steer away from long- term disease, rather than just treat it.”
William Beveridge published the report that was the foundation of the welfare state and NHS in 1942, offering a vision of hope during war, and Molloy urged ministers and others to show a similar vision for healthcare when the pandemic has ended.
Government, academia, the NHS and the private sector had shared a new “singularity of purpose”, he said. “We blew holes through the walls between disciplines [to respond to the pandemic]. We must make sure those walls don’t get rebuilt.”
“When I was establishing the Lighthouse network, every day people would assume that their answer would be yes, before you asked the question. Every sector of the community – the NHS, industry, academia, everyone. The military were helping move 400 pieces of capital equipment around the nation to be able to center them on the sites that we chose.
“Universities and small companies gave their instruments to us, and even wrote messages of good luck on the back. How brilliant and inspiring is that?”
Molloy said the sense of purpose created by Covid could be applied to other areas: “Multi-morbidities, ageing, cancers and so on. And I think government is able to keep the purpose alive, and that flame burning. Government has a role. Medical research charities have a massive role.
“We should remember that all of these things – in health and healthcare and testing and medicines discovery – are a global business. So what we develop here and prove here can be sold worldwide, for the betterment not just of health in the UK but the world.”