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Discovery
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Mary Parker and Needa Bokhari

How UK Scientists and Volunteers Tested Millions for COVID

Four Charles River scientists look back on their contributions to COVID testing

In May 2020 , the UK Government announced plans to boost testing for COVID-19. By offering at-home versions of COVID rapid antigen tests, the hope was to track the spread of COVID in the community, while also offering reassurance for people who were self-isolating.

Charles River collaborated with three other organizations to deliver a high-throughput screening program for COVID-19 testing, which took place at a specially set up testing centre. The screening centre analyzed and processed tests based on the rtPCR method. The kits composed of a swab, a buffer solution and instructions on how to take, pack and send the test for analysis.

Since the UK has lifted quarantine restrictions as of July 19th, we look back to reflect on the work of the people behind the UK’s national effort to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Chris Brown, a senior scientist in medicinal chemistry at Charles River’s Chesterford Park site in Saffron Walden, ended up taking on the role of shift lead at the screening centre. When Phase two of the screening project began, volunteers from the three other partner organizations had to step back to return to their normal routines. Chris and others helped recruit and train replacement volunteers for Phase two.

“The chemistry project I was working on for just over two years was coming to an end and I wanted something new to go in to,” Chris said. “It was either a new chemistry project or this. It was something different – the screening centre was topical and relevant and had a palpable effect immediately.”

“I was just keen to involved,” said Abigail Marklew, an ion channel biologist from Chesterford who ended up on the centre’s PCR team. “I really wanted to try and contribute to the efforts against the pandemic and feel like I could be of help and of service instead of just feeling a bit useless!”

Kelly Kuan, a Chesterford molecular cell biologist, echoed Abigail’s sentiments about feelingNHS COVID Screening Kit useful during the pandemic, and using her training to do her part. She and her husband, a university lecturer, found lockdown challenging with two young children to homeschool on top of essential lab work.

“While in lockdown, and I’m sure everyone felt this way at some point, but you can feel quite helpless,” Kelly said. “Getting a chance to contribute to something positively was quite empowering.”

Despite feeling useful, working at the centre was challenging.

“I was the sample prep team lead,” Kelly said. “The job itself involved unpacking samples and transferring them in to a 96 well plate. It was quite labour intensive as you can imagine. At each shift we had the capacity to have up to 10,000 samples. Health and safety became a huge aspect of the task at hand. We had to protect ourselves first before anything else.”

COVID data tracking becomes important

According to Abigail, there was a surge in testing around November and December 2020. The centre was hitting its goals for 22,000 samples a day around Christmas, likely due to people seeking reassurance that they could travel safely during the holidays. Even before the holidays, however, it became clear that data tracking would need to improve.

“When I started in the voluntary phase I ended up on the data team,” said John Ferdinand, at the time a postdoc at the University of Cambridge running a transcription lab. “At the beginning, we didn’t really have anyone actually called an “informatician”. One day I was sitting next to a shift lead and I was getting frustrated trying to get all this data together and I thought, what can we do to make this a lot quicker?”

John and his colleagues wrote an automated pipeline to track key details of the centre’s data, from how long a test could take to how to track an individual plate.

“It showed what plates were coming in, what they had in their room, and how they went about sending it out on time,” John said. “That was really, really useful, particularly for the guys in sample prep. I provided them with some graphs that they could see how the last 24 hours went, and they started competing against the previous shift.”

John was eventually hired by Charles River as a Technical Specialist, one of several centre volunteers who were offered jobs at Chesterford.

Both Kelly and Abigail mentioned that working at the centre improved their communication and leadership skills. Everyone mentioned how working for the centre during the pandemic helped them feel useful and productive during a time of great stress and uncertainty.

“It was always a question of why, why are we working so hard to do this? Why are we working on shift work?” Chris said. “Well, we were getting people to work from midnight to 6 o’clock in the morning because we wanted to get results back to patients as quickly as possible. Working at the Screening Centre gave us a very simple goal, so actually, getting everyone to work towards that simple goal is easy when it's when it's quite an obvious one.”

Mary Parker is Senior Scientific Writer and host of Eureka's Sounds of Science. Needa Bokhari is a Lab Technician at Charles River's Saffron Walden site.