The brains behind a coronavirus testing kit, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

At last! The spirit of Beaverbrook is with us again… and in a stunning coincidence, the brains behind a wonder coronavirus test is the grandson of the press baron whose dynamism helped win the war, writes ROBERT HARDMAN

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As every false dawn turns to dusk; as every fresh promise — be it of testing kits, protective equipment or ventilators — falls short, so the cries grow louder: where is the Lord Beaverbrook of our times?

For it was William Maxwell Aitken, the 1st Lord Beaverbook, whose bloody-minded, ‘cut-the-c**p’ dynamism transformed this nation’s prospects overnight in 1940.

After France fell, the UK was left staring at invasion or starvation (or both). Without more planes, we were doomed.

So Winston Churchill appointed the combative press baron to the new post of Minister of Aviation Production.

Beaverbrook tore up the rules and delivered instant results which saved the day.

Winston Churchill with press magnate Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, on board HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference with President Roosevelt, Newfoundland, August 1941

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is pictured in discussion with Lord Beaverbrook in 1940

In recent weeks, Britain has seen an astonishing response from across academe and the private sector to the Government’s call to arms against Covid-19.

Whitehall is doing its best to process thousands of offers against the clock, but much initial goodwill has turned to frustration.

Then the shout goes up again: where is Lord Beaverbrook? 

Well, I have found him — on a lawn in Surrey.

Maxwell Aitken, 61, is the 3rd Lord Beaverbrook. 

And while he has no ambitions to emulate his grandfather’s barn-storming role at a time of national crisis, he wants to show me a piece of equipment with extraordinary potential in the fight against Covid-19.

During the last three weeks, he has been trying to give it — free of charge — to the Government for rapid assessment.

Maxwell Aitken, 61, is the 3rd Lord Beaverbrook and is the chairman of Lifeline, a small biotech company which has fine-tuned a fully licensed digital diagnostic device

For the current Lord B is chairman of Lifeline, a small biotech company which has fine-tuned a fully licensed digital diagnostic device.

Its maker, an eminent German professor, says it can test for the presence of a particular virus in ten seconds — without swabs, chemical reagents or a laboratory.

All it requires is a clean sample of any given substance, such as, say, coronavirus.

You attach two small sticky pads to a patient and press a button.

Moments later, up comes a read-out which not only confirms the presence of a virus but can even grade the degree of infection.

And if it all sounds too good to be true, I have come to the Guildford garden of Lord Beaverbrook’s co-director and company chief executive, Paul Christie, who is sitting in the conservatory while recovering from a suspected dose of Covid -19.

Here, he has been happily testing the thing for days on end on himself and his family. The results are startling.

‘I suppose the simplest way of explaining it is to look at the way your car is serviced,’ says Lord Beaverbrook as we stare through the window at the machine and the man wired up to it.

‘In the past, it was about lifting the bonnet, unscrewing different parts and examining each one. Now, you plug the car into a computer and it tells you what is wrong. We are doing the same with the human body.’

A Cambridge economics graduate who served as a Tory minister in the Lords in the Thatcher and Major years, he recently retired as Commandant General of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.

Paul Christie, CEO of Lifeline (left) with Lord Maxwell Beaverbrook, the chairman and co-founder

Lifeline’s maker, an eminent German professor, says it can test for the presence of a particular virus in ten seconds — without swabs, chemical reagents or a laboratory

All the machine requires is a clean sample of any given substance, such as, say, coronavirus

He makes no pretence of being a scientist. But, after a lifetime’s interest in technology, he was fascinated when his Lifeline colleagues chanced upon this machine.

Built by a nuclear physicist, Professor Siegfried Kiontke, it is a diagnostic spectrometer which has long been used in exclusive German and Austrian clinics and spas such as the world-famous Mayr Clinic.

‘A lot of clinicians were using it for sports injuries,’ says Lord Beaverbrook, ‘but we wanted to expand the diagnostic capability. So we asked Professor Kiontke to take it further to identify specific pathogens.’

The result is the Global Diagnostics Digisoft Spectrometer. It was about to start serious university trials when this crisis began.

Speaking from his Zurich lab, the professor takes me through some of the science behind his machine.

Much of it sails over my head but we get down to basics. Can his machine identify a particular virus? ‘If we have a clear, pure sample of the virus, then, yes, we can,’ he says. How quickly? ‘In seconds.’ 

Armed with that sample, the professor could produce a barcode indicator which can then be sent online immediately to identical diagnostic machines everywhere — like the one in this Surrey conservatory.

Mr Christie, 48, has been laid low with Covid symptoms for a fortnight but is now on the mend.

I can’t enter his house but talk to him through the window, as he plugs himself up to his machine.

He cannot test for Covid-19 until he receives a pure government sample of the virus to produce the exact barcode.

But the machine already has the profiles or ‘spectra’ of the generic family of coronaviruses in its ‘library’.

In other words, it can already tell us, in an instant, if Paul has a coronavirus.

The machine is like a pair of set-top boxes. One controls frequency and the other analyses data.

Paul sits on a thin plastic sheet connected to a sticky pad on each ankle.

He hits ‘enter’ on a keypad and, within seconds, it shows that he has a Level 1 coronavirus infection.

With a few minutes more, the device will give a full read-out on everything from the heart to the lungs.

It is, Lord Beaverbrook insists, a potential ‘game-changer’ in the hunt for a swift coronavirus testing process. But it won’t happen without officialdom taking a proper look. 

I ask the peer about his grandfather, whom he knew as an overawed child.

‘He was a great troubleshooter — and a great troublemaker,’ he laughs. ‘He was fascinated by technology — he always had the latest phone — and he was quite a hypochondriac, so he’d have been fascinated by this machine.’

William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, who Winston Churchill appointed to the new post of Minister of Aviation Production in 1940

Sir Winston Churchill, left, and Lord Beaverbrook pictured in 1958 while in a car from Nice Airport after arriving from London, to spend a holiday on the Cote D’Azur Riviera, at Lord Beaverbrook’s villa

The current Lord B points to the example of Barnes Wallis. In the early days of World War II, many scoffed at the ‘bouncing bombs’ of the eccentric engineer — until Lord Beaverbrook got behind him.

As we all know, the result was the triumphal Dambusters’ Raid.

Could this gismo have similar potential? Lord B simply wants a medical facility to give it a go; to run it against a set of known swab results and assess its accuracy.

If it works, the current stock of 40 machines could be doing tens of thousands of tests every week. If it falls short, it will not have harmed a soul.

I talk to a German doctor who swears by the technology.

Dr Mechthild Rex-Najuch explains how she used the device to identify three strains of malaria in Africa.

It surely has to be worth a look.

So I am delighted to say that, in the last few days, officials from the Department of Health have finally responded to Lifeline’s offer.

‘We’re keen to hear more about this form of testing,’ says a spokesman.

Over to the boffins in Whitehall, then. Maybe it will be a game-changer, maybe not. But given the current situation, it should be given a chance.

‘The situation is desperate and the machine is licensed, so let us at least try to test it in battle,’ says Lord Beaverbrook.

His grandfather certainly knew all about that.

 

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