The North East scientists supporting the global fight against Covid at Newcastle's Innovation Lab

  • Report by Helen Ford

Much of the spotlight in the fight against coronavirus has been on frontline health workers.

At the same time, much work has been taking place behind the scenes, including here in the North East.

The NHS Innovation Lab in Newcastle was established a year ago, with the aim of supporting organisations around the world in the development of new Covid tests and surveillance techniques. The aim is to get a 'step ahead' of the virus.

On the day of my visit, the scientists showed me a device, described as the next generation of PCR test. Rather than sending a sample away for analysis, the process can be done on the spot, with a result coming through in minutes rather than hours.

This device - described as the 'next generation PCR test' - has been tested at the NHS Innovation Lab Credit: ITV News Tyne Tees

Innovation Lab lead, Dr John Tyson explained the potential benefits: "It allows you to do testing in places you wouldn't have been able to do previously, so closer to patients ... or in workplaces, rather than wait twenty four hours for a result to come through, you get a result back very quickly."

With this example and others, the role of the Innovation Lab is to 'test the tests'; ensuring they work effectively, accurately and will be of use in real-life situations. 

Among the companies it has worked with so far is County Durham based Kromek, validating an 'early warning system' to detect Covid particles in the air.

Kromek originally developed the technology before the pandemic and then saw an opportunity to use it in identifying Covid.

The machine has since been piloted in public areas such as schools and an airport.

Kromek CEO Dr Arnab Basu says it allows organisations to react early to an outbreak.

Dr Basu said: "We need to be a step ahead of the problem and by being a step ahead ... governments, authorities, agencies will have a better way to react, contain and keep citizens safe."

The Innovation Lab is part of a wider regional response to the pandemic, known as the Integrated Covid Hub North East, which has brought NHS and public health teams together with councils, universities and industry. 

While the pandemic remains a priority, the team at the Innovation Lab is now looking to harness the experience gained, to support the development of tests for other viruses as well as conditions like cancers.

John Tyson told me: "I think we've come a long way throughout the pandemic so I think we should capitalise on that and make sure that other diseases are better met with improved diagnostic tests."