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Supporting Scientists Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

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With the need for more frequent, large-scale testing to help efforts to control the spread of the virus, there has been a push for faster, cheaper, more portable tests as well as the use of alternative sample sources, such as saliva. The development and implementation of efficient tests is crucial in efforts to reduce the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Technology Networks recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chelsea Pratt, PhD, marketing development manager at Bio-Rad to learn more about the company’s response to the pandemic.

Ash Board (AB): How has Bio-Rad leveraged its experience over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic to support scientists, in both clinical and research settings?

Chelsea Pratt (CP):
Because of our experience in supporting scientists and labs globally to accelerate discovery and for clinical researchers to obtain faster results, we had many products already available that were used in the research and diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 in the beginning of the pandemic, and in the development and manufacturing of vaccines and therapeutics against COVID-19.

From the beginning of the pandemic, many of Bio-Rad's offerings in the immunology space helped researchers characterize host immune responses, using flow cytometry for immunophenotyping and multiplex immunoassays for cytokine profiling. As vaccines were developed, scientists used these tools to measure vaccine-mediated immunity and monitor post-vaccine immune response, and in the scale up and manufacturing of the vaccines. In addition, our lab-scale to process-scale chromatography resins can be used to purify vaccine components.

Importantly, Bio-Rad's experience in life science research and diagnostics has been key in enabling scientists to respond quickly to testing for COVID-19 infections. We anticipated that scientists would need our products, so we increased production to meet the demand for testing. In time, those same solutions also became necessary for surveillance and monitoring of variants in the population.

Beyond the provision of valuable research tools and technology, a way in which we have supported scientists during the pandemic has been through the company’s response to the unprecedented shelter-in-place/lockdown situation. Our sales and support staff, while working from home, continued to provide training and technical help virtually. We offered many virtual “expert coffee chats” with our expert support teams and application scientists.

AB: The SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics space is extremely competitive, what approach does Bio-Rad take to ensure that it stands out?

Bio-Rad provides a full range of molecular tests, reagents and instruments for COVID-19 testing including both Real-Time PCR (RT-PCR) and Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR). Real-time PCR is the gold standard in COVID-19 diagnostic testing, providing accessible, rapid results. The high sensitivity of ddPCR makes it well suited for population screening through pooled testing, and to aid in confirming negative results by other methods. One product that stands out that recently received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Emergency Use Authorization is the Reliance SARS-CoV-2 Flu A Flu B RT-PCR Assay Kit which can detect and differentiate the coronavirus from Flu A and B, targeting the coronavirus nucleocapsid, Flu A M1, and Flu B NS2 genes. It runs on the major high-throughput real-time PCR instruments, which supports the huge demand in testing.

For rapidly diagnosing patients in laboratory and point-of-care settings, Bio-Rad offers the Coronavirus Ag Rapid Test Cassette (Swab), a 15-minute highly performant SARS-CoV-2 antigen test (this product is not for sale in the US).

For serological testing, we offer the Platelia SARS-CoV-2 Total Ab assay, which detects anti-nucleocapsid antibodies IgM, IgA and IgG in one test to help identify individuals with an adaptive immune response to SARS-CoV-2.

We also offer the BioPlex 2200 SARS-CoV-2 IgG Panel, a fully automated multiplex immunoassay that provides a qualitative screen result as well as individual semi-quantitative results for antibodies to the four key viral proteins:  S1, S2, RBD and nucleocapsid. The kit is currently CE marked and available for sale in Europe and has been submitted to the FDA for Emergency Use Authorization.

AB: The speed of COVID-19 vaccine development and production is unprecedented with several new vaccines coming to market in very short timeframes – where does Bio-Rad fit into this?

We were able to rapidly adjust working practices to support all of our customers, taking advantage of virtual and online communications. We have also continued to develop products that support vaccine development, having resins that allow for broad design space, assisting in increased throughput for immunoprofiling with flow cytometry and multiplex immunoassays.

AB: How do you see the advances made during the past year translating into life sciences research?

I think we will see more collaboration between scientists, especially between academic and pharma company scientists. The vaccines for COVID-19 were developed with the built-up expertise of academic scientists who have worked on mRNA vaccine technologies for many years. They were able to transfer this knowledge to vaccine developers immediately so that the vaccines could be tested in a clinical setting, in a very rapid timeframe.

As a result, we now know that mRNA technology can be successfully applied to vaccines. This will translate into more research and development funding to create more mRNA-based vaccines.

Finally, the importance of government funded research is better recognized – especially in infectious diseases. Much of the government funding in the past decade or two has been focused on oncology and personalized medicine.

AB: Given the rapidly evolving landscape of COVID-19, what do you see as your main focus moving forward?

Bio-Rad will continue to support the scientific, public health and clinical/medical communities in the research, development, quality control and manufacturing of their vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Antibody therapeutics continue to have an impact in the treatment of COVID-19. Our ZE5 Cell Analyzer has assisted in identifying and qualifying neutralizing antibodies for further characterization and therapeutic potential.  It will continue to be at the forefront of antibody discovery and characterization.

Even as vaccines roll out, the new landscape includes dealing with the increasing number of variants circulating in the population. COVID-19 surveillance is needed to better inform public health decisions going forward, but large sample numbers and complex sample types are big challenges that need to be addressed. Bio-Rad offers several solutions to address this evolving landscape of COVID-19. Droplet digital PCR is ideal for ongoing wastewater surveillance. The Bio-Plex platform is a flexible method to measure antibody response in a population. Both real-time PCR and ddPCR can monitor variant sequences in the population.

Chelsea Pratt, PhD, Market Development Manager for Bio-Rad was speaking with Ash Board, Editorial Director at Technology Networks.