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Experts warn against lateral flow tests

Lateral flow testing has been offered to all returning students despite data that shows it misses more than 50% of Covid-19 cases. 

A study conducted in Liverpool and published on the 15th December 2020 by the British Medical Journal, found that the lateral flow tests missed 23 of the 45 participants who later tested positive for Covid-19 using PCR tests. 

The University of Birmingham and universities in Scotland have also released early study results which show a sensitivity of just 3% in the student population with 58% of results being false positives.   

It has been advised that students take two tests, three days apart, to maximise the chance of detecting Covid-19 cases. 

Lateral flow testing is already being used in care homes and schools in England, to help reduce asymptomatic transmission within communities as part of the government’s £100bn ‘Operation Moonshot’ mass coronavirus testing. 

However, experts have repeatedly expressed concern about the lateral flow tests and on Thursday it emerged The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had not authorised the use of rapid lateral flow tests to bypass self-isolation periods but instead claimed they were to “find” cases which may have gone undetected rather than “enable” risky behaviour. 

There are fears that testing will give a false sense of security, leading to less adherence to other Covid-19 guidelines, especially in high risk areas such as care homes.

At least one case of an outbreak has already been reported, where a healthcare worker returned to work with Covid-19 symptoms, after believing a negative lateral flow test result would be conclusive enough to rule out infection.

The University of Edinburgh has issued advice recommending the use of lateral flow testing as well as restricting social interactions for 10 days before and after return to campus.

Speaking to The Student, Ellen MacRae, President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association commented on the testing made available for students, saying:  

“We’re glad to see that the provision for students is still available but until the lockdown restrictions are relaxed to allow students to return to campus, we expect demand for these to remain low.  

“In terms of their reliability, the two-stage process for testing increases the reliability of the lateral flow tests, but we would always hope that students who receive a negative result continue to follow the government guidance, keeping themselves and others safe.”

A spokesperson for Universities Scotland, which represents all of Scotland’s higher education institutions, added:

“Universities were clear to students that the lateral flow device tests were an additional step students could take.

“It did not change the need for students, like the general population to practise personal safety measures: wear a face covering, avoid crowds, keep two metres distance and wash your hands regularly to minimise risk as well as request a Covid-19 test if you developed symptoms.

“We will continue to work with the government to support the students returning to campus in the new year safe and staggered fashion.”

Image: Pixabay

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