Putting science skills to new use during the pandemic
Putting science skills to new use during the pandemic .

Ever wondered how to set up a COVID-19 test centre? This article by MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge reflects on the LMB scientists’ time as coronavirus testing volunteers

COVID-19 sample preparation at the UK Biocentre. © James Rhodes

As the UK moved into lockdown in March and the LMB buildings were closed, members of the LMB felt driven to help in the fight against COVID-19.

Numerous new coronavirus-linked research projects were started within weeks and large donations of personal protective equipment (PPE) were coordinated.

The LMB assisted with a Cambridge-wide call for volunteers with skills relevant to COVID-19 testing, coordinated by Professor Ian Goodfellow at the Department of Pathology, University of Cambridge. LMB scientists quickly signed up, and a group were rapidly deployed to the new COVID-19 testing centre based at the UK Biocentre in Milton Keynes.

One of the first to arrive at the UK Biocentre was Tobias Wauer. Tobias is now refocusing on his ongoing postdoctoral research at the LMB, but here he shares reflections on his time as a COVID-19 testing volunteer:

Tobias Wauer in-action at the Lighthouse Lab in the UK Biocentre, Milton Keynes. © Tobias Wauer

I signed up to a Cambridge-wide call for volunteers to help set up the UK’s COVID-19 testing capabilities in March. I was not the only one and many scientists at the Biomedical Campus were eager to help. After not having heard back for some time, I received a phone call and then everything moved very quickly. Three days later Coronavirus testing became my new full-time occupation.

Coronaviruses or viral diagnostics aren’t particularly my area of expertise, but I guess during a global pandemic these skill-sets are in short demand. Like many others, I have however performed a lot of PCR reactions, the same technique that is used for the Coronavirus test and fortunately it turned out that this was sufficient for the task at hand. What also helped a lot, was that the LMB provided me with a car to make the daily commute.

I was one of the first recruits to set up the lab at the UK Biocentre in March. The main lab to process the tests hadn’t been built yet and a scalable work-flow still needed to be established. It was our task to convert this into the Lighthouse Lab that would only a few weeks later spearhead the UK’s testing initiative – an intimidating thought at the time.

It was important to establish a testing process that combines precision, speed and scalability. To achieve this, we first set up a manual pipeline that allowed us to process a couple of hundred samples per day. This manual process was far from being perfect, but it was very valuable in showing us where the traps and bottlenecks were.

The support we received from institutes around the country was really amazing and made a big difference, especially at the beginning.For example, when the manual pipeline stalled because a certain type of pipette had all been used up, one phone call to Jan Löwe, Director of the LMB, and a couple of hours later an army truck would arrive with LMB equipment that allowed us to continue. 

The speed at which things moved was astonishing. The room that was a seemingly chaotic construction site when I arrived, was converted into a fully functional “mega-lab” two weeks later.

Transformation of UK Biocentre into COVID-19 testing lab. © UKBiocentre 

By May we had established a highly optimised workflow that had the capacity to process more than 30,000 tests per day. This involved bringing in and training around 30 new volunteers per week, who could then train the following week’s intake of volunteers. The increase in experienced volunteers and a high level of automation meant that we could meet the increasing levels of demand and the focus shifted away from performing the actual test to the logistics of taking the swab.

In the final set-up we operated 24/7 in 12h shifts, from 8am-8pm and from 8pm-8am, something that took a while to get used to. Once we established the testing pipeline, scientists specialised in a certain task. For example, I was in charge of the section to set up the final PCR reaction. I had to make sure that no mistakes were made in the previous process, supervise the operation of the robots and train new recruits.

Helping to set up the testing facility presented one of those rare moments where we as scientists were able to truly contribute with our expertise to tackle an immediate threat. What we usually do in the lab can be quite abstract and advances in biomedical research sometimes take decades to end up helping patients. In the case of the testing capabilities it was clear that every day counts and will save lives.

The people I have been working with at the test centre were truly amazing. From day one everyone knew that this was something important, something we needed to get right. Together with the long hours it created a strong team spirit. And this did not only include scientists, it was also a close collaboration between the army who helped with the logistics, private companies which ramped up the production of reagents/machines and permanent staff who knew all about the facility. Many of them were foreign nationals, but everyone saw it as their obligation to help fight a virus that didn’t know any borders.

Further early recruits to the UK Biocentre included Elyse Fischer, Samuel Lacey and James Rhodes. As COVID-19 testing capacity increased, Hasan Al-Habib, Nadia Cummins, Antonio Galindo, Ewa Gogola, Andrei Mihut and Jack Munns joined the expanding volunteer teams in Milton Keynes (now part of the UK Lighthouse Labs Network).

After two months of long shifts, the majority of LMB volunteers resumed their research as the LMB buildings gradually reopened. However, James chose to extend his time at the UK Biocentre:

Because the testing facility was growing quickly, if we wanted we could take on more responsibility. So while the LMB slowly re-opened, I stayed on for another month as a Shift Coordinator. This has involved managing a team of 60 scientists and all the lab operations during my 12-hour shifts. It has been a wonderful experience as it’s rare as a postdoc to get much management experience.

Meanwhile Lorena Boquete Vilarino, Shabih Shakeel, Laura Whitworth, Conny Yu and Eszter Zavodszky joined the volunteer team at the local Addenbrooke’s NHS staff testing facility on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Here they worked in small teams with other local volunteers, and were responsible for extracting RNA from swabs, which was then passed on to teams in another facility to conduct the qPCR reaction.

Eszter explained why she chose to volunteer:

It’s rewarding to know my skills are of some practical use in fighting the pandemic. I’m grateful for the dedication and hard work of NHS staff at Addenbrooke’s, and I’m very proud to be supporting them through testing.

Volunteer team in-action at the Addenbrooke’s NHS staff testing facility on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. © Jane Gray CRUK

The efforts of LMB scientists to help fight COVID-19 have been mirrored by researchers world-wide, including others in the MRC family.

Though LMB scientists are now returning to the lab to continue their research, hundreds of scientists continue to volunteer at testing facilities as the pandemic continues, following the process that Tobias and others in the first group of volunteers refined.

Jan Löwe, LMB Director, commented: “I would like to express our gratitude to all volunteers, including from LMB, who have given their time to help in a moment of crisis. They have tirelessly worked to detect and combat COVID-19 during the peak of the pandemic, and have helped to build the testing infrastructure we are relying on now as the country comes out of lockdown. Thank you!”. 

Dr Tony Cox, Chief Executive of UK Biocentre, said: “I am enormously grateful to all the scientists, including those from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, who have volunteered to come and work at UK Biocentre to support the national testing effort. It is only with your generous support that we have been able to test COVID-19 samples at such enormous scale. I would like to thank all the fantastic colleagues from LMB who have supported us at this very important time.”

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