Molecular testing has been an essential tool in the efforts against COVID-19 – however, it’s rapidly transpired that not everyone has access to the same toolkit. As demand for testing rapidly increased, it soon became clear that the standard centralised lab was inflexible and archaic in the time of need. Crucially, these issues led to delayed testing at points of care or a lack of testing at all, with real and profound impacts on people’s lives as a result.
So what can we learn from the experience?
The pandemic has provided a number of lessons about accessibility when it comes to molecular testing equipment and capabilities, and where things should be heading next in order to ensure the testing lab is equitable and effective. Here are the trends we’re seeing emerge.
Portability is playing a big role
The size of molecular testing instruments has always been geared toward the big lab, and as such testing has traditionally been concentrated in centralised facilities. This has been changing – and fast. As with Ebola, mobile labs quickly became an important consideration in the fight against COVID-19. Models were developed worldwide to decentralise molecular testing efforts and address inequities for vulnerable and Indigenous populations across the world. Compact and portable equipment, such as the Mic magnetic induction thermal cycler in its neat 2 kilogram cube, were able to be easily incorporated into these plans and reliably powered by car or solar-powered batteries.
Lower cost and scalability is an important factor
Expensive investments in lab equipment may not require a second thought for major labs and high-income countries, but COVID-19 has highlighted that not everyone can afford these traditionally high outlays. You only need to read through our previous article on testing capabilities to see the disparity in testing regions, and in many cases it’s taken the support of international health authorities, not-for-profits and organisations such as the IAEA to deliver testing equipment to less developed regions. Molecular testing equipment such as real-time thermal cyclers have long been expensive and in the domain of the few, but new products such as Mic enable smaller incremental purchases and the ability to scale a system as needed without impacts on accuracy or reproducibility.
Operational flexibility is proving invaluable
As labs have been launched, decentralised and expanded, there’s been high demand for testing equipment that can provide operational flexibility. For example, some point-of care devices use cartridges that are specific to only one assay kit manufacturer, while Mic’s open platform design makes it possible to switch to another manufacturer’s kit as needed. This compact magnetic induction cycler is also significantly smaller than others within a compact 2kg cube, enabling the lab user to complete smaller runs faster – but also to scale up with multiple machines as needed. These types of flexibility can make all the difference in times of need as well as in the every day.
Just as with size and cost, the traditional complexities of lab equipment and the resulting need for expensive and skilled servicing once restricted molecular testing instruments to the centralised lab. With new product development these restrictions no longer apply – for example, Bio Molecular System’s Mic requires no calibration or servicing and is intuitive to use. This further helps to free testing equipment out into the field via decentralised and mobile labs.
Staff safety should be a concern
Staff safety has been an important consideration since the very early days of the pandemic, particularly around the handling of potentially hazardous specimens. There were global shortages of PPE equipment for health professionals and researchers, with some reusing disposable gowns and using expired masks. New measures were introduced regarding room ventilation, high-touch surfaces, and the safe handling of samples. As Lab Manager reported, some staff members became fearful of handling specimens, took superfluous safety precautions such as double bagging samples, and even refused to conduct COVID-19 testing.
The key takeaway here is that lab safety and peace of mind must be a consideration for lab managers when investing in equipment. For example, robotic automation minimises the need for lab users to handle samples continuously.
Real-time capabilities will be in demand for some time
Prior to this latest pandemic, nobody really knew much about qPCR except outside of molecular labs. Now, molecular testing has become part of our daily lives. Someone might be tested at the airport, workplace, prior to a social event and of course if displaying symptoms. As vaccines roll out across the world, molecular testing and appropriate skills will still be required for a long time to come. And the lessons learned about lab accessibility will be incredibly valuable when it comes to training specialists in the safe and accurate operation of testing instruments. With more affordable, scalable, portable and intuitive qPCR equipment, students and health professionals working in molecular biology will have greater access to the technology they need to develop their skills. And that’s a fantastic thing for the future of both public health and scientific research.
COVID-19 has accelerated the need for rapid and accessible molecular testing capabilities, and it’s crucial that we take these lessons learned and apply them in real lab settings. Perhaps the most exciting change of all is that the lab is opening up from the few to the many. Just as stereo systems evolved from large, clunky and exclusive pieces of equipment, modern lab instruments are providing a smaller, more portable and more accessible experience as with the iPod or smartphone.
Here at Bio Molecular Systems we’re proud to have developed our Mic qPCR cycler and Myra automated liquid handling system with accessibility in mind, to provide:
- Outstanding accuracy
- Easy portability
- Scalability and affordability
- No maintenance required
- Intuitive design
- Seamless software, and more.
These factors have led to these instruments incorporated in thousands of COVID-19 testing labs worldwide, including within the IAEA’s equipment packages distributed to over 120 member countries worldwide.
If you are in the process of updating, expanding or upgrading your lab equipment or opening new testing facilities, then we’d welcome you to get in touch and arrange a free two-week demo of our modern instruments.