The fall-out from the Randox drink-drug testing scandal continues, after the laboratory acted as whistleblower on several of its staff on the discovery that QC (Quality Control) results were found to have been manipulated over an extended period.
Around 10,500 drug and alcohol test results are being reviewed, and two ex-Randox staff have been arrested in what The National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC) has called a "most serious breach" of testing standards. So far, this has also resulted in 40 drug-driving offences being overturned UK-wide, and more than 50 drug-driving cases being dropped due to incorrect results.
The issue is tremendously, gobsmackingly depressing”, says Cansford Laboratories co-founder John Wicks, “and highlights a vulnerability that affects all businesses and organisations: people”."I think Randox have behaved really quite honourably. As soon as they discovered the problem they told the world. Their issue is, at root, down to rogue employees. As I understand it, individuals didn’t directly manipulate samples. Instead, they tampered with Quality Control files for individual test runs, to achieve falsely-accredited results.”
The implications are serious, says John: “As Randox were testing bloods, people will have lost their driving licenses because of false test results, which – if they needed to drive for work – could have resulted in them losing their jobs, too. Families might also have been affected if their case involved drug offences.”
At Cansford, safeguards are in place to prevent similar manipulation of results. “For staff to tamper with QC results, they’d require the support of our IT team and analysts to choose the 'right' quality control to put into test. Too many individuals would have to be involved. We also track everything in our lab via barcode so that we know where a sample is at any time. That said; if people are determined to manipulate results then they'll find ways of doing it, though eventually they’ll be found out.”
What can clients and customers do to protect themselves from such incidents?
“First: make sure you're using a UKAS-accredited lab. Second: ask for the laboratory to provide their proficiency test results, which show how closely their results for a known sample match those of other laboratories. Finally, if you're going to be dealing with a laboratory for a set amount of time, meet them; ask them to explain what they do and how they keep things secure.”
For John, the Randox inquiry points to a need for more rigorous safeguards within the forensic testing sector.
“I've thought about this issue a lot. Ultimately, it does come down to the people. As a sector, we must realise that it is possible to move stuff about; it is possible to fabricate evidence, regrettably, and there have to be safeguards that say this cannot happen.
“At the moment, proficiency testing schemes – where laboratories test a known sample and compare results – are a self-help method to help laboratories get better, with the aim that the variance between laboratories decreases over time. The UK must now think in terms of regulating labs that do any of this sort of testing. We need a regulatory body that's stronger than UKAS that says if you're testing for a specific type of substance – drugs or asbestos, for example – then you must meet a required performance level. Laboratories must prove that they can work within this standard.
“Currently, if labs fall outside the proficiency testing boundaries because their results are wide of the results generated by other labs, nothing happens to them. When this happens in future, an external party must go into the lab in question and support them to produce the correct results.
“We're taking things too much for granted. I've discussed the idea of setting up an industry association with other labs, to take control of the issue ourselves – though it would be even more effective if implemented by the Government testing regime. For the laboratories who are doing it right, this would be no sweat.
“Trust takes years to build but can evaporate very quickly. It’s up to us to restore consumers’ faith in forensic testing and prevent another case like this from happening."