UK’s first megalab opens in Leamington Spa to bolster COVID-19 testing

As the ‘centrepiece’ of the UK’s NHS Test and Trace network, the Rosalind Franklin laboratory will use cutting-edge technology to process COVID-19 tests and detect new variants and new mutations.

The megalab forms part of the new UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), which sets out priorities to manage the virus, and is under the leadership of former deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries.

The technology will include automation, robotics and LGC EndPoint PCR (EPCR) testing workflow for COVID-19, which can process up to 150,000 tests each day.

“The pandemic has provided us with clear evidence, on a daily basis, that you can only challenge viruses of this kind with the right testing and genomics infrastructure in place.”

-Chief executive of the UKHSA, Jenny Harries

WHY IT MATTERS

The laboratory is part of UKHSA’s plans for the next part of the battle against the pandemic. It will process and sequence thousands of COVID-19 tests a week and play a role in responding to new variants of concern, with the aim of building the UK’s pandemic preparedness.

The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory also aims to create and upskill scientists with a programme of training and will create up to 1,500 jobs when fully staffed, with around 60% of the staff hired coming from within 30 miles of the site.

Using tools such as genotype assay testing and surge testing, the UK’s disease detectives will use the lab to take action to stop outbreaks as society reopens.

Chief executive of the UKHSA, Jenny Harries, said: “Our mission at the UK Health Security Agency is to learn the lessons of this global pandemic and positively harness them in how we prepare and steel ourselves against future health threats.

“The pandemic has provided us with clear evidence, on a daily basis, that you can only challenge viruses of this kind with the right testing and genomics infrastructure in place.

“The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory is going to be a critical scientific addition to how we manage this virus in the months ahead, arming us with data and intelligence on the spread of variants that will inform decision-making and ultimately, save lives.”

THE LARGER CONTEXT

In recent news, UK prime minister, Boris Johnson has been criticised for his decision to press ahead with easing coronavirus restrictions in England on 19 July. The British Medical Association have called this “irresponsible” and that it could cause “potentially devastating consequences”.

Meanwhile, across the pond, a study published in JAMA Network Open this week used the largest data repository of COVID-19 patients in the United States to develop a model to predict clinical severity based on first-day admission data.  

ON THE RECORD

Dr Charles Alessi, chief clinical officer at HIMSS, told Healthcare IT News: The opening of a “megalab” to further speed up testing and genome sequencing in the UK is a sign that governments are starting to take the notion of preparedness for future pandemics much more seriously. The UK is already in a good position and viral genome sequencing and the industrialisation of this process bodes well for when the next pandemic appears.”

Sajid Javid, health and social care secretary, said: “The UK Health Security Agency is going to put us at the forefront of the global battle against COVID-19 and help us stay a step ahead of new and emerging future threats.

“Trailblazing technologies are going to be pivotal to delivering on this bold ambition and I’m delighted that today we are bolstering our capabilities in testing and genomic sequencing with the opening of the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory.

“This laboratory will be one of the centrepieces of our efforts to manage this virus in the future, processing hundreds of thousands of positive COVID-19 tests a day to help us stop cases becoming outbreaks.

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