Scientists at King’s College London have opened up a new diagnostics lab to help the NHS process the many thousands of swab tests needed to help bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
It is one of several new sites springing up to help health officials meet their target of testing 100,000 people a day and relieve pressure on the NHS.
Hundreds of volunteers affiliated to the university including PhD students, research assistants and post-doctoral students signed up “almost instantly”, those leading the lab said.
The lab is also using a heat process to inactivate the samples before they are opened without compromising the test results.
It means the team will not be put at risk of infection if they face shortages of personal protective equipment.
Alongside processing the nasal and throat samples, the team has been developing alternative reagents used in the testing process after the pandemic caused a shortage in international supplies.
Some of these chemicals are already going through the approval process.
Earlier this month, the Institute of Biomedical Science warned that lack of testing kits and reagents rather than lab space were the biggest barriers to meeting testing targets.It warned that newly set-up testing facilities could end up competing with established NHS labs for resources unless solutions were found.
Dr Michael Malim, head of the School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences at King’s College London, said the lab was working to build “resiliance and flexibility” into the testing process.
“The new reagents, once approved, will help relieve the burden of the NHS’s clinical labs,” Dr Rocio Martinez-Nunez, also of the School of Immunology and Microbial Sciences, said.
She added: “This will allow many labs to use multiple reagents and release the backflow of tests.
“The next stage is to benchmark all protocols for use in the wider population and other laboratories.”
Describing the lab’s army of volunteers, she said: “The energy and enthusiasm people have shown is incredible.
“Within the horror of the pandemic, we have found that people really want to help. It’s a ray of light.”
King’s College London is the latest in a string of universities to set up a test processing lab.
After the Francis Crick Institute opened its repurposed lab earlier this month, its director Paul Nurse said: “Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour.”
He added: “Staff from across the Crick have rapidly pulled together to make this happen, and we are very grateful to them.”
Elsewhere, a test processing site set up at the University of Cambridge with pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline aims to process 30,000 by early May.
The University of Glasgow also answered the call, setting up a processing lab under the Government’s Lighthouse Lab scheme at its Queen Elizabeth University Hospital campus which opened on Wednesday.
Other Lighthouse Lab sites include one at the life science research and development facilities at Alderley Park in Cheshire, and in Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.