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Collaboration Between Organizations Is the Key to Getting Ahead of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has been raging for well over a year now. In January 2020, the novel coronavirus genome was mapped out, giving researchers the ability to track not only its spread but its lineages over time and across locations. Now, after a year of lockdowns, there’s reason for hope: vaccines are starting to take effect, with early evidence of their value visible in falling case numbers in some populations after rollout.

But we’re not out of the woods yet. Testing for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to be critical across the world, and will be in the future, particularly in light of new variants. The availability and accuracy of COVID-19 tests have evolved greatly over the last year, with hundreds currently granted emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Antigen tests generally identify a protein on the virus, and are cheap and fast, but have higher false negative rates. The “gold standard” polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test detects the virus’ genetic material and has near-perfect accuracy—but it takes longer and costs more. A PCR test for both COVID-19 and the flu also recently gained EUA. A home test has been authorized for emergency use by the FDA but is the less-sensitive antigen test. Rapid next generation sequencing (NGS) provides resolution down to the level of a single nucleotide and therefore has important implications for tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants.

The key to expanding and perfecting testing lies, arguably, in effective partnerships between organizations. Most people are familiar with the international “race” towards a vaccine, the reality is that partnership between organizations, rather than siloed competition, has been a cornerstone of the remarkable progress during this time. Pfizer, for instance, partnered with a relatively little-known but promising young company, BioNTech, to develop the first vaccine to attain EUA in the United States. 

A similar trend has happened in the field of testing methodologies and will likely continue in the coming months and years. If COVID-19 becomes a virus that stays with us permanently at some level, perhaps ebbing and flowing seasonally, accurate tests to detect both the presence of the virus and its evolution will be critical. Some concerning new variants of the virus began to emerge in the fall of 2020, and now the UK (B.1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), and Brazil (P.1) variants are becoming the dominant version of the virus in certain areas, and will be critical to trace in the future.

To support the need for accurate and widespread testing, Beckman Coulter Life Sciences has actively expanded its collaborations with partner organizations in recent months. We’ve partnered with Fry Laboratories and BioID Genomics to develop a high-throughput NGS method for SARS-CoV-2. Whereas Beckman Coulter is a leader in nucleic acid purification, RNA extraction, automation solutions, and key reagents, Fry Labs brings renowned NGS library preparation technologies and cloud-based data analysis platforms, and BioID Genomics excels at kit manufacturing. Combining “specialists” in this way has huge potential in the COVID-19 fight and beyond.

Developing rapid, highly-automated NGS research tools has important implications for monitoring the virus’ evolution. NGS is an extremely flexible method of DNA sequencing that can analyze an entire genome—since it can also detect the different variants of a virus, it will be a powerful tool for genomic surveillance of the novel coronavirus over time. Unlike PCR, it can also detect more than one type of virus in a sample—for instance, the flu virus, or even other pathogens. In this way, NGS will be incredibly helpful in the coming years, when it will be necessary for epidemiological research to distinguish between COVID-19, the flu, and other viruses.

Another recent partnership of ours is with Genedrive, a leading maker of a “pre-plate” platform for PCR that can significantly streamline and speed the PCR process. Genedrive’s platform includes primers and other necessary reagents to run dry, rather than liquid-based, PCR tests. Because only one reaction is required, and at room temperature, the method reduces the risk of supply chain problems and temperature storage concerns; and because there’s no prepping reagents and dispensing fluids, the risk of human error is even lower.

Whereas Beckman Counter Life Sciences was always interested and open to partnerships, we now actively seek them out. And this seems to be a trend across the larger biopharmaceutical and life sciences industries—hopefully it will continue going this way in the coming years. Cross-organization collaboration is really the key to creating better, more innovative solutions in healthcare. If the COVID-19 pandemic has had any silver linings, one might be that we’ve seen clearly how putting our heads together leads to more effective, speedy solutions than working alone.  

About the author:

Han Wei is a market development scientist at
Beckman Coulter Life Sciences.