Each box-sized device is capable of processing 10-14 cartridge tests a day, each of which costs around £40. Once all DnaNudge boxes have been delivered and installed, there will be enough capacity for roughly 280,000 tests a day.
This will prove vital for restarting NHS services, allowing patients and staff to be quickly assessed prior to surgery or other health care procedures.
A source working on the project said: “We’ll be able to reduce waiting times by moving testing from the laboratories – some of which have been relying on older tech since the pandemic started – and into hospitals.
“These tests have got the potential to be a game-changer for the UK. Everyone in the testing networks is asking how they can get their hands on it.”
Hospital patients and staff will soon be able to find out if they have Covid-19 within just one hour under a rapid nationwide testing programme being developed by the government.
Central to this new strategy is a small, handheld testing device that can process a sample on-site and detect the virus from a non-invasive nostril swab.
In a “major” contract secured with London-based health firm DnaNudge earlier this month, the government has ordered up to 20,000 of the “lab-free” devices, which will be introduced in hospitals and health clinics across England between October and March.
The Independent understands that discussions are ongoing between the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the NHS and England’s 29 testing networks, overseen by biomedical scientist David Wells, to extend this service to social care settings, such as GPs.
Health secretary Matt Hancock is said to have personally written to DnaNudge after the deal was secured, thanking the small company for their contributions to the country’s testing programme.
The test, based on the design of a DNA test developed by a professor at Imperial College London, has been well reviewed among health professionals after being piloted in cancer wards, accident and emergency, and maternity departments in the capital.
Under current targets, the DHSC aims to return tests results within 48 hours of a swab being taken by officials at regional testing sites, mobile testing sites, satellite centres or NHS facilities.
However, the government is now moving to deliver a new “point of care” approach that will supplement Boris Johnson’s plans to return England “to normality” by Christmas, while preparing the country for a possible second wave during the winter months.
The DnaNudge test, which requires no specific medical expertise, has an accuracy rate of over 98 per cent and specificity of 100 per cent, meaning it will always correctly identify negative results.
It can also determine the difference between a person who does not have the disease and a sample which was not taken properly, eliminating false negatives.
Once a swab is taken, it is inserted into a handheld reader that provides results within under 75 minutes – drastically cutting down on the current 48-hour wait for a laboratory diagnosis.
After being approved for clinical use by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in April, the test was first trialled at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, West Middlesex University Hospital, St Mary’s, and at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital.
At the time, Chris Toumazou, a professor of engineering at Imperial College who developed the test, said: “It is a lab in a cartridge effectively.
“The key is that with this test you go straight from a saliva swap or a nasal swab into the cartridge with no transport and no laboratory.
“You can even look at such small fragments of the RNA (Ribonucleic acid) that you can check whether a patient is coming out of it or going into Covid.”
Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College who led the clinical development, said: “This is one of the most exciting technologies I’ve seen in this area, particularly because it avoids the need for any sample handling.”
Dr Gary Davies, hospital medical director at the Chelsea and Westminster, explained: “This test does work and is actually more sensitive than some of the lab tests.”
He said the test had been used for patients coming into hospital to help decide which ward to place them on.
The government is continuing to look into other rapid testing technologies that will further help in getting the country back up and running, having this week unveiled plans to increase testing capacity to half a million tests a day by the end of October
Data from the DHSC shows the average testing turnaround time in NHS pathology laboratories is 12 hours, while more than 95 per cent of these return results within under 24 hours.
In contrast, just 2.4 per cent of home testing kits were returned within 24 hours.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson pointed to efforts to increase the country’s testing capacity.
“The UK government is continuing to scale up testing capacity for coronavirus, to protect the vulnerable, support our NHS, and ultimately save lives.
“This is a national effort and we are proud to be working with a number of partners on innovative solutions to increase capacity where it is needed.”