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Testing for COVID-19 coronavirus at the Francis Crick Institute

by Katie Roberts | Analysis

2 April 2020

9 comments 9 comments
The Francis Crick Institute in London
The Francis Crick Institute in London have opened a COVID-19 testing facility for local hospitals.

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.”

Katie 


    Comments

  • christine adams
    12 May 2020

    excellent use of resources – well done team

  • David Kelly
    9 May 2020

    I think it’s a good idea.

  • Miriam Swainston
    9 May 2020

    Great to see the forward thinking and adaptability of your research teams

  • David Kelly
    8 May 2020

    I’m sorry, I over-reacted a bit with my last comment, but it does annoy me that the South seem to get everything & the North, (Lancashire), nothing. I like the idea of using virus v virus, that is a brilliant idea!

  • David Kelly
    8 May 2020

    When are we going to get a testing centre in Lancashire so that we up North can access one. The Government soon found a place to put people who had to be quarantined, aye, that were up North!

  • Jeannette Carlile
    8 May 2020

    How incredible is that support.

  • Ros N
    15 April 2020

    Really excellent, well-written and clear, Inspiring too!

  • Patrick
    7 April 2020

    A very impressive response but who is paying for this? Is the government funding this or is it my donations and the donations of those who sponsor my fundraising challenges?

  • reply
    Katie Roberts
    8 April 2020

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for your question about the Crick funding. Our core aim as a charity is to improve cancer diagnosis, treatment and care through research. But in a time of global crisis, the scientific community must come together to help as many people as possible. We have resources like labs, equipment and amazingly skilled scientists that can help to tackle coronavirus and put an end to this sooner. The sooner we can beat coronavirus the sooner we can resume our live-saving research.

    The Francis Crick Institute is funded by multiple organisations, including the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK. And if our clinical staff have gone to work for the NHS full time, we expect their salaries for this period will be covered by the NHS. You can read more about that on our website.

    Best wishes,

    Katie, Cancer Research UK

  • Veronica anderson
    5 April 2020

    Your doing an amazing job.

    Comments

  • christine adams
    12 May 2020

    excellent use of resources – well done team

  • David Kelly
    9 May 2020

    I think it’s a good idea.

  • Miriam Swainston
    9 May 2020

    Great to see the forward thinking and adaptability of your research teams

  • David Kelly
    8 May 2020

    I’m sorry, I over-reacted a bit with my last comment, but it does annoy me that the South seem to get everything & the North, (Lancashire), nothing. I like the idea of using virus v virus, that is a brilliant idea!

  • David Kelly
    8 May 2020

    When are we going to get a testing centre in Lancashire so that we up North can access one. The Government soon found a place to put people who had to be quarantined, aye, that were up North!

  • Jeannette Carlile
    8 May 2020

    How incredible is that support.

  • Ros N
    15 April 2020

    Really excellent, well-written and clear, Inspiring too!

  • Patrick
    7 April 2020

    A very impressive response but who is paying for this? Is the government funding this or is it my donations and the donations of those who sponsor my fundraising challenges?

  • reply
    Katie Roberts
    8 April 2020

    Hi Patrick,

    Thanks for your question about the Crick funding. Our core aim as a charity is to improve cancer diagnosis, treatment and care through research. But in a time of global crisis, the scientific community must come together to help as many people as possible. We have resources like labs, equipment and amazingly skilled scientists that can help to tackle coronavirus and put an end to this sooner. The sooner we can beat coronavirus the sooner we can resume our live-saving research.

    The Francis Crick Institute is funded by multiple organisations, including the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK. And if our clinical staff have gone to work for the NHS full time, we expect their salaries for this period will be covered by the NHS. You can read more about that on our website.

    Best wishes,

    Katie, Cancer Research UK

  • Veronica anderson
    5 April 2020

    Your doing an amazing job.