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Published: 05 August 2020

Volunteering for the Covid-19 national testing programme

Nominated by her PhD supervisor Dr Suzie Higley-Wilson, Microbial Science student Nira Lauterkorn has been volunteering in the flagship Covid-19 mega lab at the National Institute for Health Research Biocentre in Milton Keynes.

Image of Nira Lauterkorn

Volunteering for the Covid-19 national testing programme

Nominated by her PhD supervisor Dr Suzie Higley-Wilson, Microbial Science student Nira Lauterkorn has been volunteering in the flagship Covid-19 mega lab at the National Institute for Health Research Biocentre in Milton Keynes.

Nira Lauterkorn is a PhD student, working on a thesis on the respiratory infection, tuberculosis. During the pandemic, she successfully applied to support the national testing program for Covid-19. Having worked in a laboratory in the past, which included helping with the avian influenza outbreak at the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), she has been working in the Biocentre lab since the beginning of May, testing patient samples and often working 12-hour shifts.

Nira shares insight into the practices that occur there: “We process human swab samples, which are taken from the throat and nose and then placed into viral transport medium. If a patient is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the swab in the viral transport medium should contain the virus’ genetic material as viral ribonucleic acid (RNA). The swab from the viral transport medium is removed in a biological safety cabinet, the sample is then placed into a Tecan liquid handling machine that carries out the automated pipetting step of each sample onto the lysis buffer plate. The extraction of viral RNA from the lysis plate is then performed using automated extraction robots followed by detection using a common method in molecular biology, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This SARS-CoV-2 specific PCR targets three different genomic regions of the virus and these regions are then amplified to detect its presence.

“The government scheme which offers testing to all who suffer from the symptoms of Covid-19 and the ‘test and trace’ strategy to control the virus has increased the sample numbers”, says Nira. “The mega lab is open 24/7 and there is a 12-hour shift rota to handle the increased number of samples. It is physically demanding, particularly during the 12-hour night shift to test the samples. We currently test around 30,000 samples per day and there is room to extend. It is an incredible achievement to expand the testing capacity in such a short frame and to instigate all the quality control methods required. To ensure quality and to prevent any false positive or false negative results, the method is constantly checked for its repeatability, reproducibility and sensitivity and optimised if needed.

“On top of the long hours, there is the added pressure from knowing that each sample corresponds to an individual person awaiting nervously their test results. Managers really appreciate and value the skills and, expertise that comes with each volunteer and the recent visit from the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, at UK Biocentre on 12 June has shown the importance of the Covid-19 testing labs.

“The last two months have been incredibly rewarding and I feel fortunate to have utilised my skills in contributing towards the national efforts in tackling this pandemic. It has also been a great opportunity to build networks with other researchers who are working as volunteers to support the national testing program. The managers appreciate my contribution and are very keen to keep me for longer”.

We celebrate Nira’s tireless enthusiasm and expertise in volunteering at the Biocentre, selflessly performing invaluable and vital testing to help control the virus in the UK.

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