Across SEFARI we are using our capability and continuing to make our expertise available to assist with national and regional strategies dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective efforts have included loaning equipment, staff volunteering and adapting our research to help with understanding the impacts of the crisis.
In addition, colleagues at Moredun and Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) Veterinary Services have been working hard to support the NHS by providing extra capacity for testing to help tackle the pandemic, which is the focus of this blog.
When lockdown was announced across the UK back in March, and the seriousness of the pandemic began to hit home with daily bulletins from the UK and Scottish government on the news and the alarming spread of COVID-19 cases, many scientists, including those at SEFARI, looked to see what they could do to help with the national effort.
On Thursday 25th June the first samples arrived for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) testing within the labs at Moredun and SRUC Veterinary Services (VS) and this was the culmination of many weeks of work behind the scenes to set up a new “testing node” to support our colleagues at NHS. We are very proud of all SEFARI staff, including those at Moredun and SRUC VS, who have worked so hard over the last few weeks and months alongside colleagues at the NHS to step up and help in the national COVID-19 emergency.
Our colleagues are very used to working with a range of different infectious agents that cause livestock diseases and we have the necessary high containment laboratory facilities and skilled staff to be able to work with viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Together, Moredun and SRUC VS provide internationally recognised diagnostic surveillance for livestock diseases in Scotland and have the capacity to deliver high throughput testing.
Consequently, colleagues immediately contacted the NHS to see where we could offer help. Testing is clearly a priority and there are currently two types of test being used; the test for the virus itself, the molecular (swab) test, which lets you know who has active virus infection; and the antibody test which can be done using a blood sample, usually taken three to four weeks after symptoms have disappeared, this will tell you who has been exposed to the virus. Our focus, to date, has been solely on the detection of the virus in swab samples provided by the NHS using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) based assay.
There were many meetings, video calls and discussions taking place in a very fast paced environment as the UK and Scottish Government worked very hard to develop a testing strategy, and together with the NHS looked at ways of rapidly increasing testing capacity. SEFARI colleagues got involved in many of these discussions and also had daily meetings at Moredun to look at options on what we could do to help. In these discussions, we made contact with NHS Lothian and Dr Ingolfur Johannessen, Director of NHS Lothian Laboratory Medicine and Clinical Lead for the Scottish National Laboratory Medicine Programme, who was coordinating a project to develop regional academic nodes to support NHS laboratories across Scotland. We were invited to join this exciting national programme and things moved quickly to set up a new testing node in a matter of weeks. This involved a huge amount of work to re-purpose and fit out the high containment CL-3 laboratories, train our volunteer staff, and prepare all the required assessments and operational procedures.
|Dr Ingolfur Johannessen, Director of NHS Lothian Laboratory Medicine and Clinical Lead for the Scottish National Laboratory Medicine Programme said, “We are delighted to work with the Moredun Research Institute and SRUC in a collaborative partnership approach to COVID-19 virus PCR testing, which builds on a template that NHS Scotland has created for such novel approaches in its efforts to expand national testing capacity and ensure resilience. The partnership with Moredun and SRUC expands that approach even further, supporting both NHS Lothian’s test requirements as well as overall national test capacity”.|
Work was carried out with NHS colleagues to validate the test procedures, to set up a supply chain for all the consumables required and (with IT teams in Moredun, SRUC and NHS) to ensure connectivity and communication routes. We were all driven on by the daily news updates on the spread of the virus and the need to provide more testing capacity. As fast as possible, the Moredun/SRUC testing capability was set up and validated to ensure compliance to NHS diagnostic standards and full integration into NHS systems. We were all delighted when our “veterinary node” went live in June and we have been working together with the NHS since then to provide testing capacity to support the national effort to tackle COVID-19. The SRUC VS diagnostic laboratories operate to ISO 17025 quality standard and the COVID PCR test is now accredited to ISO17025 within our testing system.
Moredun and SRUC are continuing the collaboration with the NHS to look at ways of increasing the safety and efficiency of the testing as well as understanding more about the immune responses of people responding to the virus.
Helping with a pandemic was not what Moredun, in particular, were expecting to be doing in 2020, Moredun’s centenary year (established by Scottish farmers back in 1920), but it exemplifies the spirit and ethos of all SEFARI staff and our willingness to step forward in a time of crisis and do what we can to help. Efforts such as these show how effective a One Health approach can be to help tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and could provide capacity in the future to help tackle other potential zoonotic diseases.
|Sheila Voas, Chief Veterinary Officer Scotland said, “I am delighted to see this example of One Health in action. This combined effort between the world class team at Moredun and SRUC has shown how vets and medics can work together to support the NHS and combat this pandemic”.|
Professor Elisabeth Innes, Director of Communications, Moredun Research Institute;
Dr Mara Rocchi, Head of Virus Surveillance Unit, Moredun Research Institute;
Dr George Caldow, Head of Scotland’s Rural College Veterinary Services;
and Dr Jenny Thacker, Molecular Biologist, Scotland’s Rural College Veterinary Services.