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Every Test Counts – Volunteer Network Aims To Help Increase COVID-19 Testing

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Launched in the UK on April 9, 2020, the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network is hoping to bolster national testing efforts by helping small laboratories with relevant equipment to convert to COVID-19 testing.

To learn more about the network, how laboratories can join it, and the difference it could make to the national response to the pandemic, we spoke to James Raftery, one of the network’s volunteers.

Anna MacDonald (AM): Why is testing so important in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic?

James Raftery (JR):
Testing is essential to the UK’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the wider population, it helps people understand how many are infected with the virus. This is vital to informing measures to control the spread. Testing is vital for front-line health workers. They are especially at risk of being infected, due to their crucial work combatting the effects of the virus by treating those who are ill. Testing front-line health workers can help to control the spread as well as reassure those who are not infected that they are safe to carry on saving lives.

AM: Can you tell us about the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network and its aims?

The COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network was set up by Mike Fischer CBE to increase the availability of tests for front-line health workers. It works to connect private laboratories with GPs and other health workers, facilitating the growth of testing capabilities. The network helps private labs to overcome challenges when converting to COVID-19 testing facilities. This is done through a variety of ways, such as procuring the necessary testing kits, connecting labs to volunteer scientists, and explaining how to use their existing equipment for COVID-19 testing. We are growing rapidly, with nearly 60 labs in our pipeline to convert to COVID-19 testing.

AM: How easy will it be for labs to convert to COVID-19 testing?

It is very straightforward for labs to convert. Many of them, even if they were not previously diagnostic testing labs, already have the requisite RT-PCR machines and other necessary equipment. Mike Fischer’s SBL lab was originally a non-profit private research lab and was able to set up within a week. Labs often have equipment and expertise already in place. We already have a number of labs conducting testing through the network who have been able to convert very easily.

AM: Are there any anticipated challenges of trying to scale up testing in this way? What about the availability of reagents and consumables needed?

The beauty of our networked model is that it has a great capacity to scale up quickly. As more labs joined the network, we recruited more volunteers to work with them and help solve their problems. We have been pleasantly surprised by the extent of lab interest, and now are putting a lot of effort into helping them overcome barriers. A challenge labs have faced is that they do not always have the money to buy test kits. We have been able to help with that – Mike Fischer has donated £1m to help buy consumables and cover other such equipment for volunteering labs. We have also been talking to a number of potential philanthropists. Availability of consumables like reagents and swabs has also been a difficulty. There is huge global demand for these products at the moment. However, our procurement team has been doing a great job sourcing vital supplies with many orders coming in over the next few weeks.

AM: How can a lab join the network?

It is really easy for labs to join the network. Simply visit www.covid19-testing.org to register your interest. Both labs and individual scientists can sign up to help. If you are part of a GP practice and interested in testing for your workers, you can sign up here too.

AM: What difference do you envisage the network could make to the national response to the pandemic?

The network could make a great difference to the national response. Our work has the potential to scale up very quickly, providing vital testing for front-line healthcare workers across the country. Countries that have extensively tested, such as Germany and South Korea, did so with a wide network of 100s of smaller labs, much like ours. Our efforts will be able to complement the government’s larger central testing centres. Our focus on testing healthcare workers is especially valuable to the UK’s response to the pandemic, as they are vital to making sure that as many lives are saved as possible.

James Raftery was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer, Technology Networks.