How are labs and researchers adjusting during the COVID-19 pandemic?

April 20, 2020 Greg Muth

The Science & Technology world is shifting focus to help fight COVID-19. How are they adjusting their testing and research?

 

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, news reports highlight what’s happening in hospitals and with healthcare workers—with good reason. They are on the front lines of this pandemic. As the virus has disrupted all our lives, and drastically affected the lives and work of frontline healthcare providers, it has also disrupted the operations at all the laboratories we have designed over the years to support healthcare. These labs and researchers may not be as visible as the hospitals, doctors, and nurses—but they are just as crucial to successfully overcoming the coronavirus.

Researchers all over the world have shifted their focus from their regular research topics to researching this virus. Almost all other research has shut down. We want to explain what’s going on in labs right now, but first, it’s important to understand the different ways that labs are contributing to the COVID-19 effort. I’ve broken this into two categories, testing and research.

 

Labs and researchers may not be as visible as the hospitals, doctors, and nurses—but they are just as crucial to successfully overcoming the coronavirus.

 

COVID-19 testing

As of April 20, 3,893,815 COVID-19 tests had been administered in the US according to the COVID Tracking Project. We are up to around 65,000 tests per day now, but experts say that we need to be performing 150,000 tests per day. That’s a lot of testing, more than twice the number currently being administered.

Testing breaks down into two major categories: polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and serological testing. In PCR testing, a sample is typically heated with a reagent, and fragments of DNA strands from the virus are amplified and identified. These chemical reagents are the “testing kits” that we’ve been hearing so much about and are closely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA has approved numerous manufacturers to provide the test kits under emergency authorizations and there are 20 tests approved for use. These tests are run on PCR machines that are ubiquitous in labs across the country and generally take less than an hour.

 

What are the challenges?

Individual PCR machines are well-suited for point-of-use tests inside a doctor’s office or clinic. But, because they can only process a single sample at a time, they can’t generate the volume of tests that we need. Alternatively, tests run at centralized labs found in hospitals, state and city health labs, and commercial testing labs use equipment that can process many more samples at one time. With that said, they typically require transporting, logging, and tracking of samples—so results can sometimes take days, meaning they are not as timely. _q_tweetable:Researchers all over the world have shifted their focus from their regular research topics to researching this virus. Almost all other research has shut down._q_

Our clients who are manufacturing test kits are reporting all the same challenges that the rest of us are, with social distancing and shelter-in-place restrictions putting unusual stress and demands on their workers. In addition, they are starting to see supply chain disruptions on parts and chemicals coming from China and India. Our clients are notifying us that they’ve ramped up production and throughput, but they acknowledge that they are still not able to keep up with demand.

While a PCR test can only tell if the virus is present in the body at the time the sample was taken, a serological test can tell if someone has ever been exposed to the virus—even if they have recovered. A blood sample is screened to detect the presence of antibodies. These tests will tell us if someone has developed an immunity to the virus, but they are not as effective as it may take up to eight days after infection to be able to detect the virus. Regardless, this testing is important. It tells us who has possible immunity to the virus and can therefore care for others without extreme protective measures.

We’re still not where we want to be regarding the volume of testing for the virus, but we’ve made tremendous progress. This growth in testing has allowed us to see the scope of the problem we are facing, and now it’s starting to show the effectiveness of steps that we are taking to reduce the spread. Our clients are going to keep pushing their limits and expanding the availability of tests.

 

Our clients who are manufacturing test kits are reporting all the same challenges that the rest of us are, with social distancing and shelter-in-place restrictions putting unusual stress and demands on their workers.

 

Researching the pandemic

So, what’s happening in our clients’ research labs? Research into COVID-19 can be broken down into two categories: vaccines research and therapeutics research. Because there had already been a lot of research into novel corona viruses coming out of the SARS and MERS outbreaks, our clients have been able to react incredibly quickly to the crisis.

There are currently nine vaccine platforms with 41 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in development right now. Six are already in clinical trials. Some of these candidates are experimental new technologies that have never been used in a vaccine before. One thing to keep in mind is that the makers of even these early vaccines don’t anticipate having final clinical test data until January of 2021. Then, they will face the challenge of having to ramp up production to provide billions of doses of the vaccine.

On the therapeutics front, our clients are working on treatments to either fight the disease by preventing viral growth or treat its symptoms by preventing pneumonia or inflammation. There are now 21 drug compounds in clinical trials.

There are also other treatments like cell/gene therapies and plasmapheresis—the removal, treatment, and return or exchange of blood plasma to the blood circulation—being tried to provide relief to patients. For the most part, these are drugs or treatments that had already been in the pipeline or were already on the market, that are now being tried out on a novel pathogen. This is crucial because it can take 10 years or more to develop a new drug from initial discovery to release to the public. Along these lines, many of our clients are reporting that they are searching their vast libraries of compounds for a drug that would be effective against the virus.

Right now, our clients are telling us that there won’t be any easy cures for the virus. It will take an enormous effort that crosses international boundaries. There will probably need to be more than one treatment and more than one vaccine. They will be working on this for a while, and even once a cure is developed, it will take a large effort to produce the quantities of medicines and vaccines that are necessary. But, there is an enormous amount of confidence in the ability to eventually manage or completely control this virus.

Our S&T team would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to all the scientists, researchers, and technicians who are toiling away, running tests, and looking for a cure. And to all the healthcare workers who are caring for those infected by this virus. Your efforts are what will get us through this crisis.

About the Author

Greg Muth

Greg Muth brings more than 30 years of experience to our Science and Technology (S&T) group. His background encompasses the management and design of large, complex science and technology projects throughout the nation for private, academic, and corporate clients. He also has experience in public/private partnership (P3) and design-build alternate project delivery models.

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