Francis Crick Institute and UCLH develop COVID-19 testing service for patients and NHS staff

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NHS staff testing for COVID-19 has been boosted by repurposing the Francis Crick Institute’s laboratory facilities as a testing facility, to help combat the spread of infection and allow key workers to perform lifesaving duties and remain safe.

Across the country, a significant proportion of healthcare workers are self-isolating with suspected symptoms or because family members are ill, adding pressure to frontline services. This new access to reliable testing, developed in partnership with University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust and its diagnostic partner Health Services Laboratories, will give staff the information they need to know whether they can safely return to work.

In order to become a testing facility, scientists from across the Crick have refocused their work to support the UK’s coronavirus response.

We wanted to use our facilities and expertise to help, and we are proud to be able to support NHS staff on the front line who are battling this virus.
Paul Nurse

“Testing is an essential part of the national effort to tackle the spread of COVID-19. We wanted to use our facilities and expertise to help support NHS staff on the front line who are battling this virus,” says Paul Nurse, Director of the Crick.

“Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour.”

“Staff from across the Crick have rapidly pulled together to make this happen, and we are very grateful to them,” said Steve Gamblin, Crick Director of Scientific Platforms, who has been organising the new testing facilities.   

The Institute estimates that by early next week, scientists should have the capacity to be conducting around 500 tests a day or 3000 a week. In the longer term, researchers are aiming for 2000 a day. 

They will aim to provide results within 24 hours, to enable NHS staff to return to work as quickly as possible.

Starting with UCLH, the Crick will also offer its testing to other hospitals.  

Volunteer scientists

In addition to performing tests at the Crick, over 100 of the institute’s scientists with relevant skills have volunteered to perform shifts in Public Health England’s scale-up testing labs, lending much needed practical scientific skills as demand continues to grow.

Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, Group Leader at the Crick and UCL, and Consultant at UCLH, helped lead the endeavour after witnessing first-hand the urgent need for additional tests. 

He says: “Access to rapid COVID testing is critical. I am seeing and hearing daily of the pressures facing frontline NHS staff. The Crick has the facilities and expertise to help. We wanted to use our resources and expertise to benefit staff and patients at a time when the NHS faces what is the biggest test in its history.”

“We hope this additional capacity for testing will make a difference to NHS staff, boost morale and keep themselves, their families and their patients safe, as well as supporting the wider national effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.”

UCLH Chief Executive Marcel Levi said: “The Crick have been a fantastic partner. They have rapidly set up the laboratory processes needed for our staff COVID-19 testing service.  This will enable us to gradually ramp up access to testing for UCLH staff.”

Rachael Liebmann, Vice-President at the Royal College of Pathologists and Group Medical Director at Health Services Laboratories said: “Health Services Laboratories is delighted to contribute towards this project, in addition to testing patients for COVID-19 in all the hospitals we serve. As diagnostic laboratories, this is our main function. Pathology testing laboratories are frequently overlooked but now it is becoming clear to politicians and to the public alike, we have a crucial role to play in the healthcare of the nation.

The testing method used at the Crick, which involves RT-PCR to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been compared and verified against the national standard. The methodology is flexible, allowing for variations in technique where necessary, which should help protect it against global shortages of reagents and equipment. 

These methods will be shared with one of the Institute’s founding partners, Cancer Research UK, so that they can investigate whether similar efforts could be set up at their other scientific facilities. They will also be shared with other laboratories across the country. 

As a scientific research community, we need to beat the pandemic together.
Iain Foulkes

Iain Foulkes, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research, said: "Our funded scientists at the Crick are playing a vital role in the national COVID-19 testing effort. They are providing desperately needed capacity at a time of national crisis, and testing NHS staff quickly so they can decide if they can return to their life-saving work. 

"As well as the Crick, many Cancer Research UK laboratories throughout the country are providing vital testing kit and skills. And we are proud of our scientists, some of the best in the world, who are turning their focus to COVID-19 during this global pandemic. 

"As a scientific research community, we need to beat the pandemic together – the sooner we do that the sooner our researchers can get back to beating cancer."

COVID-19 in the lab

COVID-19 in the lab

Crick experts in virology, immunology, bioinformatics and imaging also continue to improve our understanding of COVID-19 and the way it interacts with the human body. Together, they’re tackling questions including:

  • How does the virus structure allow it to infect humans?
  • How does the virus replicate in human cells?
  • Why do some people end up in intensive care?
  • What treatments are best for people with severe symptoms?
  • How can we tell who’s already had the virus?
  • How long does immunity last?

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