Coronavirus: Belfast laboratory to begin testing next week

By Conor Macauley
BBC NI Agriculture & Environment Correspondent

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image captionThe lab promises to significantly increase Northern Ireland's Covid-19 testing capacity

A laboratory which promises to significantly increase Northern Ireland's Covid-19 testing capacity is now expected to begin work next week.

The facility near Stormont, was visited by two executive ministers on 14 April, for a media launch.

At the time the health minister said he hoped it would get through 1,000 tests daily within two-to-three weeks.

But it is understood quality control work to ensure the integrity of the testing system has meant some delay.

It is now expected to start testing next week with 100-200 samples a day before throughput is increased in the coming weeks.

It could be a further fortnight before the system gets up to 1,000 daily tests.

Queen's and Ulster University, pharmaceutical company Almac and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, an agency of the Department of Agriculture and Environment, are involved in the work.

In a statement they said they had been working closely with the Royal Victoria Hospital's Regional Virus Laboratory and the Belfast Trust to get the testing "up and running as quickly as possible".

"It is important that rigorous processes and quality control measures are in place to ensure the testing is accurate and that there is full confidence in the test results.

"Partners are hoping to initiate full testing arrangements next week.

Human samples

"In the first instance this will involve conducting approximately 100-200 tests per day and after approximately a week this figure should rise to 500 per day, ramping up to 1,000 per day shortly thereafter."

At the launch, Health Minister Robin Swann welcomed the increased capacity as "critical", allowing the executive to get testing to the level it had wanted "for quite some time".

The laboratory is one which normally tests for animal disease, but was being repurposed to focus on human samples.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots also attended the event and welcomed the move saying increased testing was necessary to give the executive the flexibility to move out of lockdown when testing and contact tracing would be vital.

Latest figures from the Department of Health show around 1,300 daily laboratory tests completed for coronavirus.

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