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Testing times for French group in virus-ravaged UK

  • Such private-sector facilities are an option for Britons who want tests but do not yet qualify for free screening through the public health system.
27 Jan 2021

LONDON: Technicians at Biogroup's new Covid-19 screening centre in London's plush Notting Hill are hard at work, giving the French giant a foothold in Britain where deaths have topped 100,000.

White-coated lab staff mill around dozens of diagnostic machines at the group's nearby headquarters, processing tests from Biogroup's four walk-in hubs in the British capital.

Such private-sector facilities are an option for Britons who want tests but do not yet qualify for free screening through the public health system.

Biogroup, which offers medical laboratory testing services and was formed in France in 1998, expanded into Britain last year on the back of the global coronavirus health emergency.

"Our strategy is opportunistic: there was a health crisis and we put our resources to the service of the people of London and England," Thomas Leclerc, who co-founded the UK branch with colleague Astrid Gouilliard, told AFP.

The pair are betting that demand for screenings will endure, and that the pandemic will not disappear overnight despite the mass vaccination campaign currently under way.

"Given the evolution of the pandemic, I don't think we'll be out of it in two, three months, it's a market that is likely to last six months, a year, if not more," said Gouilliard.

Gouilliard, a biologist and pharmacist by training who has lived in London since 2004, believes that people will still want Covid tests until at least the end of 2021.

The new venture came about very quickly, she said.

"In September, not having been able to get myself tested, I told myself that I was going to open a Covid test laboratory. In England, it's much easier than in France," she said.

The Notting Hill screening centre opened in mid-December, as Britain was hurtling towards its full exit from the European Union institutions on January 1.

Two more locations are planned in Manchester and Liverpool in northwestern England.

Biogroup UK believes it can help plug gaps in the British screening system.

Unlike in France, where a vast network of private laboratories carries out tests before being reimbursed by the government, in Britain, the state-run National Health Service (NHS) does most of the testing.

"The private sector represents only five percent," Gouilliard said.

That gives little scope for it to relieve pressure on the centralised health system during a crisis.

France allows anyone to be tested free of charge in a pharmacy or laboratory, but Britain only offers such services to people displaying symptoms.

For those who have come into contact with an infected person, or want to travel or visit a person at risk, the private sector is the only option.

The laboratory provides results within 24 hours, which it considers essential for effective tracing of the epidemic.

Biogroup charges £135 ($185, 153 euros) to process a test, which it says is low for London prices, but the bill can rise quickly for families and businesses.

Some of the companies in talks with Biogroup to test their staff regularly are thinking twice, said the founders.

"We have invested, we can't do these tests (for less) unless we have volume," said Gouilliard, who notes that many people prefer not to be tested or falsely declare symptoms to benefit from free public screening.

Central control of testing with infrequent use of private labs has created a ceiling for demand that keeps costs high, she added.

The company also had to start from scratch -- hiring staff, buying equipment and renting premises -- pushing up costs compared to France where infrastructure is already in place, added Leclerc.

Beyond the coronavirus, Biogroup UK's long-term strategy is to complement the public sector "when there are crises or the need to develop new technologies".