Government-approved Covid testing firm faces watchdog probe

Government-approved Covid testing firm faces watchdog probe over plans to sell swabs with customers’ DNA for medical research

  • Information Commissioner’s Office looking at information about Covid test firm
  • Cignpost Diagnostics spoke of plans to sell customer swabs to third parties 
  • But customers were not clearly told their swabs could be sold to ‘collaborators’   

A Covid-19 testing firm is under investigation after it said it planned sell DNA samples from customers to third parties for research.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK’s data privacy watchdog, said it would ‘look carefully’ at information gathered about Cignpost Diagnostics over its plans to sell customers’ swabs.

The company, which was among the Covid test providers approved by the Government this year, had spoken of its plans to sell the sensitive medical data in order to ‘learn more about human health’. 

But those booking Covid tests with the firm, which trades as ExpressTest, were not clearly told their swabs could be sold to ‘collaborators’ working with the company or independently, including universities and private companies, for medical research.

They were instead asked to agree to a privacy policy which linked to another document outlining the firm’s ‘research programme’.  

It is not yet clear how many swabs Cignpost Diagnostics, which is reported to have delivered up to three million tests since it was founded in June, have kept or if any have been sold for research purposes.

The Covid-19 testing firm is being investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) over its plans to sell customers’ swabs for medical research. (Stock image)

But the firm also states that data including ‘biological samples’ and ‘genetic information’ will be retained and DNA samples will be shared.

The firm has now removed references to its research programme from its privacy policy, The Sunday Times reports. 

The ICO said it would ‘look carefully’ at information gathered by The Sunday Times about Cignpost Diagnostics.

In a statement issued to MailOnline, IOC Deputy Commissioner Steve Wood said: ‘There is no personal data more sensitive than our DNA. People should be told about what’s happening to it in a clear, open and honest way so they can make informed decisions about whether they want to give it up.

‘Testing is a key tool to help people go back out and enjoy life as we emerge from the pandemic. For it to succeed, people must have trust and confidence in how their personal data is used.

‘That means testing schemes must be fair and transparent and we’ve worked with organisations throughout the pandemic to ensure people’s privacy is considered from the outset.’ 

In April this year it was reported that Cignpost Diagnostics was among the cheapest testing firms, charging just £60 for a PCR test at Gatwick and £80 at Heathrow, Birmingham and Edinburgh airports.

On its website, the Government-approved testing firm says that it works with Netflix, the Scottish FA, PGA golf, ATP tennis, and other businesses to provide results in four hours.

Unlike most other companies, it has its own mobile laboratories and technical staff which means it can cut costs while still making a ‘modest’ profit. 

In September, Cignpost Diagnostics was among the new coalition of Covid test providers provided by Laboratory and Testing Industry Organisation (LTIO) which  promised to create a ‘trustworthy’ list of companies Britons can rely on for accurate, timely and fairly priced swabs.  

Cignpost Diagnostics, which was among the Covid test providers approved by the Government this year, spoke of plans to sell the sensitive medical data in order to ‘learn more about human health’

The formation of LTIO came after vows from the Government  to crackdown on the PCR test market, which was likened to the ‘Wild West’, with firms labelled by ministers as ‘acting like cowboys’ by advertising misleading prices on the Government websites. 

No10’s consumer watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), advised the Government to create a one-stop shop list of approved test providers.

In one of eight recommendations the CMA advised doing this by ‘improving the basic standards to qualify for inclusion and remaining on the list’. 

The LTIO vowed to create a ‘gold standard accreditation process and kitemark to provide consumer certainty’.  

Only providers which followed a code of conduct based on the letter the CMA sent out could get the kitemark. Providers also had to score 3.5 or above on the independent Trustpilot rating website.

The LTIO said it would work with the Government to ensure that the UK industry had the world’s ‘highest ethical and professional standards’. 

The other founding firms were: BioGrad, Halo Verify, Medical Diagnosis, Project Screen by Prenetics and Qured. 

Cignpost said in a statement to The Sunday Times it ‘is in full compliance with all laws related to data privacy’ and they have ‘invested significantly in robust systems and processes to ensure we protect our customers’.

MailOnline has approached Cignpost Diagnostics for comment.

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