Amazon beefs up Covid testing capabilities

·3 min read
A lab technician processes PCR test samples at Amazon’s Covid-testing facility in Manchester
Amazon has set up its own Covid testing facilities in Greater Manchester

Amazon is to expand its Covid testing lab facilities in the UK as the pandemic continues.

The online giant said this was to benefit employees and UK public health.

However, analysts said it could also provide business opportunities in the health sector and buff up Amazon's reputation after questions over working conditions.

Amazon recently moved into the online pharmacy business in the US for subscribers to its Prime service.

Lab tests

In 2020, the online retailing giant set up laboratories in Kentucky and in Greater Manchester to process employees' PCR tests.

The lab in Manchester has processed 900,000 test samples to date.

The test results are anonymous and will be shared with Public Health England once the lab is approved for sequencing.

Its coronavirus response efforts have so far cost the company $11.5bn (£8.1bn).

Tom Forte, managing director and senior research analyst at D.A. Davidson, said Amazon could convert staff Covid-19 testing and healthcare clinics for consumer use.

"We believe Covid-19 inspired Amazon to accelerate its healthcare-related efforts, by necessity.

"That said, we had long believed healthcare was an attractive opportunity for Amazon given its large market size and chances for the company to both improve the customer experience and lower the costs."

Analysis box by Colletta Smith, Consumer affairs correspondent
Analysis box by Colletta Smith, Consumer affairs correspondent

There are very few companies in the world who could have decided to build a state of the art diagnostics lab and have it functioning within months, but Amazon is one of them.

While the company insists that at the moment this site is purely to help keep their staff safer at work, they are sending out a very clear message.

They are able to process medical diagnostics and feed that information into public health agencies.

Right now this multimillion-pound site in Salford is only testing for Covid-19, but it's unlikely to be left idle after the pandemic.

Amazon's most valuable product is the information they already hold about their customers, and medical data is a very rich pool indeed to be dipping their toes into.

Lab director Luke Meredith joined Amazon from the World Health Organization and works alongside 70 Amazon lab technicians at the site in Wardley, Manchester.

"What we decided during the Covid outbreak is that we really needed to maximise protection for safe working in the fulfilment centres," he told the BBC.

Luke Meredith, director of Amazon’s Covid-testing laboratory in Manchester
Luke Meredith said the lab will help increase protection in Amazon's warehouses

At the moment, the two sites are processing samples from staff across Europe and the Americas, tapping into the company's logistics network.

Neil Travis, North West regional director for Amazon UK, said: "For now, we are focused on the safety of our colleagues."

James Moar, lead analyst for Juniper Research, thinks that Amazon's expansion of its testing laboratories is "intended to enhance Amazon's reputation", although he said Amazon would be unlikely to pass up a business opportunity.

There have been a number of controversies about how Amazon treats its staff.

On Wednesday, a report found that staff at its warehouses in the US are injured at a higher rate than those doing similar jobs at other companies' warehouses.

Earlier this year, the company apologised for falsely denying that its drivers were having to urinate in plastic bottles.

And during the first wave of the pandemic, the company was accused of "cutting corners" on Covid safety, which it denied.

However, Mr Moar thinks that having the laboratories could be useful to Amazon in the future.

"Amazon has tried to get into healthcare in a number of ways," he said.

"This is basically Amazon saying that as well as providing the facilities for its employees' healthcare, it's a demonstration that they can work to provide healthcare services.

"This means they've already got some groundwork to show any potential partners."