The Francis Crick Institute in London

The Francis Crick Institute in London have opened a COVID-19 testing facility for local hospitals. The Francis Crick Institute in London.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to put the NHS under huge strain. And a crucial issue keeping key health workers at home is the lack of testing capacity.

Simply put: without tests, healthcare workers with symptoms are forced to stay home, even though they might not have the disease.

But testing capacity is rapidly accelerating, partly thanks to Government efforts, but also thanks to the efforts of researchers up and down the country.

Leading the way, London’s Francis Crick Institute – of which Cancer Research UK is a major funder – has been temporarily transformed into a COVID-19 testing facility, to help combat the spread of infection.

The testing facility, developed in partnership with University College London Hospitals (UCLH), aims to give NHS staff the information they need to know whether they can safely return to work.

A rapid response

“Two weeks ago, it was clear to me that we didn’t have COVID-19 testing at the hospital and we needed it,” says Professor Charlie Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, who spearheaded the transformation with Steve Gamblin, the Crick’s research director, in just 2 weeks.

“We had healthcare workers off with symptoms but without a confirmed diagnosis, because there was no clear approach to testing.”

At the same time, most labs at the Francis Crick Institute were winding down their work because of coronavirus. Being a clinician as well as a scientist, Swanton “could see first hand the pressures that clinicians are under with a lack of an access to testing.”

Swanton thought it would be sensible to see if they could use the immense resources of the Crick to create a coronavirus screening platform for patients and healthcare workers. “For me, it was essential to help us get staff back to work, and to ringfence people who are infected, to limit the spread of coronavirus.”

The team didn’t waste any time – a late-night email kicked off the conversation, and the first meeting was held the very next morning.

That was just 2 weeks ago. “It’s taken us a fortnight to set up a diagnostics lab at the Crick. And that’s all thanks to the skill of the scientists at the Crick – it’s an amazing place,” says Swanton.

Scaling up operations

Swanton estimates that around 50 Crick scientists are now working on coronavirus testing. “But once we’re at full speed and we’re doing hundreds or thousands of tests a day, I expect it will be 2 or 3 times that number.” Scientists will be working in shifts to enable the facility to run 24 hours a day.

“The good thing about being right next to the hospital is that we can turn tests around quickly – samples can get here fast and we can react to local pressures much more quickly.”

Swanton believes a local approach is vital to reducing the spread of coronavirus. And that’s why the Crick are sharing the blueprint to their testing facility with colleagues across the country – including Cancer Research UK’s other institutes – so they can ramp up their own sequencing efforts.

“The way we’re managing thousands of samples is by using robots that have been programmed for this assay. And many labs will have these robots across the country, so we can share the code to help get them set up.”

While this has meant shifting labs away from working on cancer, Swanton believes it’s a necessary step to beating the pandemic and allowing healthcare workers to get back to treating patients – including people with cancer.

“This is a national emergency and it’s something we’ve got to tackle. And testing is the key – the only way we’re going prevent the spread – and rebuild capacity in the NHS – is to know who is infected and who isn’t.”

Our executive director of research, Iain Foulkes, agrees. “We’re 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.”