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Francis Crick superlab steps in to help increase coronavirus tests

Aim to reach 3,000 tests a day

09 April, 2020 — By Tom Foot

Scientists at work at The Crick

LABORATORIES at the Francis Crick Institute have been transformed into coronavirus testing centres after a national outcry about the low number of tests available for hospital staff.

The £700million Institute is piloting a service for “high priority” staff from University College London Hospital.

Crucially, test results can be turned around within 24 hours meaning workers can tell quickly whether they can safely return to the NHS’s coronavirus frontline.

The Crick, as it is commonly known, carried out 500 tests this week and the plan is to expand to analyse 3,000 tests a day as the centre in Midland Road, Somers Town, becomes a “valuable central testing location” for the national fightback.

It comes during a week when yet more NHS staff have died from Covid-19, causing a growing sense of alarm among key-workers about the safety of their hospitals.

Charles Swanton, a UCLH consultant and Group Leader at the Crick, set the programme in motion after seeing first-hand an urgent need for more testing in his own hospital.

“Access to rapid Covid testing is critical,” he said. “I am seeing and hearing daily of the pressures facing frontline NHS staff. The Crick has the facilities and expertise to help.” He added: “We hope this additional capacity for testing will make a difference to NHS staff, boost morale and keep themselves, their families and their patients safe as well.”

Dental nurses from the Royal National ENT and Eastman Dental Hospitals, run by University College London Hospitals, have been drafted-in to swab the UCLH staff.

“Staff from across the Crick have rapidly pulled together to make this happen, and we are very grateful to them,” added Steve Gamblin, the Crick’s science projects chief, who is in charge of a research group that is leading a probe into key questions about Covid-19.

The Crick is pioneering research into precisely how the virus transfers between “host species” and also aims to understand why viruses and other respiratory pathogens “cause only mild symptoms in some people, while in others the infection can be severe and even deadly”.

Scientists around the world are trying to unlock the puzzle over how many people may have the Covid-19 coronavirus without realising, amid concerns that the asymptomatic may unwittingly be causing more infections – the idea that there may be a percentage of “silent spreaders”.

Other key questions Crick research is aiming to unravel is why some people end up in intensive care, what treatments are best for people with severe symptoms, and quicker ways to work out who has already had the virus.

This leads to another key question about those who recover from the disease: “How long does immunity last?” The answers to these questions could take months of work.

The Crick is also specifically looking at the “unprecedented challenges” facing cancer care clinicians.

Because of the virus, oncologists are having to weigh up whether to postpone or modify anti-cancer therapies for patients – including immunotherapy, chemotherapy, and targeted treatments – as well as surgery.

Meanwhile, more than 100 scientists from The Crick have volunteered to perform shifts for Public Health England. They have been scaling-up testing labs and lending much needed practical scientific skills.

Sir Paul Nurse, The Crick’s director, said: “Institutes like ours are coming together with a Dunkirk spirit – small boats that collectively can have a huge impact on the national endeavour.

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