Crick COVID-19 testing: Behind the scenes with Tony Fearns

Written by BETHAN FLAHERTY for The Francis Crick Institute Intranet
  • Date created: 21 April 2020
Tony Fearns

As an SLRS in the Gutierrez lab, Tony Fearns normally works with one of the deadliest pathogens on the planet. So his Tuberculosis lab has stepped in as part of the COVID-19 testing process at the Crick to help train colleagues to work in containment level three facilities. Using the same protocols used for TB research, Tony is now working on inactivating the samples that arrive from the NHS.

 

Hi Tony, can you tell us a bit more about your usual role at the Crick?

As a senior laboratory research scientist in the Gutierrez lab, I have a number of responsibilities, but my favourites have to be training new lab members to work safely with Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) at containment level 3 and providing electron microscopy expertise for the lab. If I’m not mistaken, I’m the only person in the Crick with this combined skill set! Our research focuses on the host-pathogen interactions in Tuberculosis and I take great pleasure from telling people that I work with one of the deadliest pathogens on the planet! In the lab, we often combine live-cell imaging by confocal with electron microscopy to study the intra-cellular behaviour of Mtb in macrophages, at a detail unachievable by any single other microscopy technique.

What is your lab doing as part of the COVID-19 testing? 

I work with a fantastic team of scientists in Max’s lab, and many of them have volunteered to help with the COVID-19 testing. Because we’re all CL3 trained, it’s meant we can help to train other volunteers and familiarise them with the protocols. We normally use these protocols for TB work, and they’re now being used in the pipeline for COVID-19 testing.

It’s been great to see so many people volunteering their time and skills to help others, and I think the Crick has really come together to show what is possible when you have a “can-do attitude”. On a personal note, it’s also reminded why research on tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases, is so important.

How does your part of the process work?

Samples that arrive from the NHS must first be inactivated before they can be safely handled. The process itself is quite simple; once the samples arrive they are logged on the system then hurried to CL3 facility where we’re waiting to receive them. We then check the barcodes against the samples to make sure they match, then transfer the swabs into 5M Gu buffer to inactivate any virus present. The main challenges lie with adhering to the strict procedures we have in CL3, as well as constantly cross-referencing the tubes to ensure that samples are properly assigned to their correct bar codes so none are lost.

How did your involvement come about?

From early on, CL3 users were asked if we’d be interested in volunteering to help train scientists who don’t normally work in high containment facilities. One of the main challenges facing labs wanting to help is the requirement of high containment facilities to first inactivate the virus, so it can be processed safely. But the response from across the Crick has been great and many students, postdocs, LRSs and group leaders have come forward from a whole range of backgrounds, including TB, malaria, influenza, HIV and toxoplasma.

How are you and your team working at the moment? 

Simon Caiden and Lauren Wynne in SHS have done a fantastic job in organising the rotas and getting everyone trained. We work in teams of three and divided into morning and afternoon shifts (we do get a break during our shift). Everyone is told to arrive around an hour before samples arrive and once the samples are on site, we have a bit of time to prepare the tubes and our work areas whilst the sample reception team catalogues the newly arrived samples.

Outside of COVID testing, the lab has tried to keep things are as normal as possible. We still have the usual timings for our 1-1 meetings, journal club and lab meeting on Thursdays (albeit now all virtually, of course). We’ve also introduced a happy hour on Fridays to catch up informally.

Personally, how are you finding it?

I remain optimistic about the whole situation. It’s been great to see so many people volunteering their time and skills to help others, and I think the Crick has really come together to show what is possible when you have a “can-do attitude”. On a personal note, it’s also reminded why research on tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases, is so important.

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