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Expanding our ability to test, test, test

At the moment, people who are suspected of having Covid 19 undergo a swab PCR test which looks for genetic particles of the virus in their nasal or oral secretions. This can take from less than 24 hours up to five days depending on the lab.

At the BSPS molecular lab at the Royal Surrey Hospital – one of the most advanced in the country – we can process a test within 24 hours but we have all the latest instruments and technical staff. Many other centres don’t have the equipment we have and take longer to process these tests. The lab scientists are also working towards reducing the time in various steps of the entire test procedure in order to shorten time interval required to get results.

As the government had set a new goal of achieving 100,000 tests by the end of April, we ramped up our own capability by recruiting new staff and creating more space in existing premises. With this expansion, we could reach up to 2000 tests a day.

We’re just part of a bigger picture happening now in small labs right across the country, but there have to be more superlabs and drive in centres to do more tests to reach our target. There are some other issues to overcome however. We do need to work out how we are going to get all the reagent chemicals we need to make these tests possible. WHAT ARE REAGENTS AND HOW DO THEY WORK IN TESTS?

At the moment, these chemicals are in short supply. 20-30 years ago, we would have been able to make standard reagents locally but now the manufacturers of the testing equipment, including the German pharmaceutical company Roche, provide custom made reagents with proprietary formulae. In other words, you need to buy the product from them and no one else.

It makes sense in a commercial world so companies can maximise profits but has its drawbacks when supply cannot meet demand. If we knew the formula in theory we could make it ourselves locally. Currently the government is centrally controlling the supply chain and providing reagent and green top swab supply as per the requirements of various centres which is indeed a good move.

Dr Izhar Bagwan
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