NHS test and trace is trialling new technology to speed up the detection of known Covid mutations in positive test samples.
The technique, known as genotype assay testing, can potentially identify variants of concern within two or three days rather than the four or five days taken by genomic sequencing.
This could in turn mean positive cases are contacted more quickly, potentially stopping the spread of variants – including those that are more resistant to existing vaccines – before they pose a threat to the government’s “roadmap to freedom”.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the goal was to eventually test every positive Covid sample for known variants.
He said: “This type of testing will help us rapidly identify variant cases and trace contacts quicker than ever before, helping stop outbreaks in their tracks and ensuring we can continue to follow the roadmap we have set out to get back to normal life.”
The new technique will be used alongside genomic sequencing, which is able to identify previously unknown variants. It can also be adapted to test for any mutations that emerge in the future.
Junior health minister, Lord Bethell, said: “I am confident we will see positive outcomes from piloting this technology. Using this test to identify known variant of concern cases has the potential to accelerate our knowledge and understanding of variants of concern and halt their spread across the country.”
Ten variants are currently being monitored by the government, four of which were first detected in the UK.
They include B.1.1.7, which was identified in Kent in September 2000 and was blamed for the rapid surge in cases in the UK in December and January ahead of the third national lockdown.
While research suggests this variant is both more infectious and more deadly than other forms of Covid-19 circulating in the country, experts believe the Pfizer vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab are just as effective against it.
However, there is mounting concern about the South Africa variant B.1.351, after the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was found to provide only limited protection against mild and moderate disease from this version of the virus.
More than 300 cases of this variant of concern have been identified in the UK so far, compared to 55 for the Brazil P2 variant and 12 for the Manaus P1 variant.
The government has sought to prevent the spread of this and other variants of concern with targeted surge testing in affected areas. Surge testing is currently underway in six London boroughs, Sandwell in the West Midlands and Stafford.