SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

COVID-19 rapid knowledge exchange hub on diagnostic testing systems

The Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged countries to “Test. Test. Test.” as a core part of national responses to COVID-19. Some countries – such as Germany and South Korea – quickly implemented successful diagnostic testing systems, which helped to achieve relatively low rates of COVID-19 mortality.  However, many countries – including the UK - have faced significant challenges in establishing these systems. Resulting delays have caused higher mortality rates, hindered the targeting of healthcare resources, and prolonged the duration of lockdown measures, which has had severe economic consequences.

Introduction

This research project seeks to gather data from countries where effective diagnostic testing systems have been implemented and ask how key aspects of these systems could be rapidly replicated in other contexts. The project team will identify the key elements of successful testing systems, including measures taken that facilitated preparedness and resilience before the crisis, and rapid innovations that helped countries to deal with a fast-evolving pandemic. The project will establish a UK research and knowledge exchange hub that will facilitate dialogue between the international research team and policy makers so that relevant questions are rapidly addressed and key findings are disseminated in the UK and beyond.

Methodology

The research is proceeding in two work packages, running in parallel:

  1. International comparison of countries. Researchers will collect data about the testing systems in the four nations of the UK as well as those in South Korea, Germany, the Ireland, Spain and South Africa. Research questions will explore the organisation of testing systems for different applications, from supporting test and trace programmes to surveillance of the disease at the population level.  In each case we will compare aspects of the system design, such whether provision is centralised or distributed.
  2. Transnational institutions and regulatory pathways. Researchers will explore how nation-states interact with transnational actors – such as the WHO, the EU, and large diagnostics companies – and seek to understand how these relationships determine national policy and impact on the scale of the global crisis. Desk research and stakeholder interviews will focus on the interaction between two potentially conflicting policy priorities: (i) increasing the range and quantity of tests available and (ii) ensuring the quality of tests and laboratory testing through regulatory controls.

Impact and Outreach

This research aims to provide timely international comparative analysis of effective national diagnostic testing systems as well as highlighting the important role of transnational organisations. Findings from the project will aim inform the COVID-19 response in the UK and internationally, on topics including testing strategies for the virus and antibodies, and on the roles of international organisations in supporting diagnostic innovation.

The team will undertake knowledge exchange with a wide range of stakeholders, including countries in the Global South and North, and publish academic outputs that contribute to the understanding of diagnostic innovation in the field of infectious disease. Additionally, the project will contribute to national and international efforts to learn lessons from the current crisis in order to prepare for future outbreaks.

Further information

This project is led by Professor Michael Hopkins of the University of Sussex Business School.

The project team includes:

The project will last for 6 months, with funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.