‘We’ve done what should normally take six months in about four weeks’

28 Apr 2020

Dr Anne Jones. Image: Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

Dr Anne Jones of Genomics Medicine Ireland discusses the company’s efforts to provide reagents to help scale up Covid-19 testing across the country.

Earlier this month, Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI) announced that it will be working with the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) in UCD to help scale up Covid-19 testing in Ireland.

The goal is to produce up to 900,000 tests for the country by supplying detection reagents to the NVRL and its partner labs, which are primary testing centres for the virus. This could work out at 10,000 tests per day in the coming weeks, according to GMI CEO Dr Anne Jones, which could help bring the country back to “more normalcy”.

The Department of Health and the HSE have set a target of 100,000 Covid-19 tests per week by mid-May, as public health experts continue to review data to help decide when restrictions and distancing measures can be eased.

“We have agreed to produce and supply the Covid-19 detection reagents for NVRL and its partner labs,” Jones told Siliconrepublic.com. “Basically, we’re buying in the basic components and making up the reagents that are used for the testing. So, we use our facilities and our expertise and our robotics or automation so that we can scale up to about 10,000 tests per day.”

Reagents are used to test swab samples taken from suspected Covid-19 patients. What that involves is making up the reagents and putting them into 96-well plates. These are produced by GMI – “ready-to-go”, according to Jones – and are then shipped directly to the NVRL or its partner labs, where swabs are taken in from the community. The samples are added to the reagents, forming the test for Covid-19.

“So, if you think of A plus B as the test, they [the NVRL lab] prepare A, the sample, and we prepare B, the reagent, and then they put the two together to get the test,” Jones said.

Addressing the Covid-19 bottleneck

Jones explained that she and her colleague Dr Patrick Buckley, who heads up the company’s lab, first met with the NVRL around a month ago. At that time, there was a bottleneck for testing Covid-19 in Ireland, caused by global constraints in the supply of reagents.

“We thought, well, let’s procure reagents – or the components for hundreds of thousands of reagents – so that we’re ensuring supply,” Jones said.

“The motivation is very much similar to what anybody wants to do in a crisis – how can we support the testing efforts in as meaningful a way as possible?”

‘More testing is what’s needed in order to be able to open up the country again’

In the company’s day-to-day work, GMI is looking at the human genome in order to better understand the role of genetics in disease and rare conditions, with the aim of developing precision medicine approaches. Jones said that drawing on genetics can also inform approaches taken in response to Covid-19.

“Covid-19 itself is a genetic piece. So, genetics plays an important role in its detection. Being able to understand genetics enables you to understand lots of things, including the transmission of the disease. You can tell where the virus came from.

“And eventually, of course, it’s important for developing both therapies and vaccines and also understanding which humans may be more susceptible to the virus.

“That’s not just an age thing. It can also sometimes be that younger people are more susceptible, and we don’t know why. So, understanding the human genetics and how they react to the virus is also important.”

Testing teams

When the NVRL agreement was announced at the start of April, GMI said that its lab would operate seven days a week to formulate reagents. Now, Jones said that there are several group rotations every day with multiple teams on call to make this feasible.

It’s not an all-hands-on-deck situation for the company, she added, saying that “there’s a lot of people who are focusing on the day job”. However, “everybody feels very involved”.

“A particular number of people are very involved in this,” Jones said. “I’ve tried to make sure that we are able to pivot the business piece and do it quickly.

“It’s not a very easy process itself. It’s not incredibly complex. But, in my mind, we’ve done what should normally take about six months in about four weeks. So, we’ve had to work very long hours to get it done.”

GMI is also offering free sequencing at the moment, through which it hopes to “be able to contribute positively” to greater understanding of Covid-19.

“Everybody wants to be able to help and to be involved and to have the opportunity to be able to genuinely make a difference in testing in Ireland,” Jones added.

“We believe this will facilitate the required testing that would contribute to easing the restrictions in Ireland and get back to more normalcy. More testing is what’s needed in order to be able to open up the country again.”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021