Exeter leading the way in COVID-19 testing

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The University of Exeter is supporting the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust (RD&E) to be at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19, providing some of the most rapid testing for the virus available to hospitals anywhere in the UK.

Thanks to its cutting-edge microbiology facilities and its partnership with the University of Exeter Medical School, the Trust has been able to rapidly scale up its testing abilities. It is now testing all patients admitted to the hospital – and giving a positive or negative result for COVID-19 in 1 to 2 hours. NHS Staff in the hospital and the community are also benefitting from the improved testing capacity using high-throughput platforms in the laboratory.

The trust is also supporting Public Health England (PHE) in COVID testing throughout the South West, and has been commissioned to provide tests for the more than 2000 care home residents in Devon.

The RD&E is able to do this thanks to investment in state-of the art lab machinery – it is one of only four hospitals in the country that can provide the rapid Point-of-Care (POC) tests which are now being done 24 hours a day in the testing lab set up virtually overnight in its Emergency Department. Support from the University will help deliver the capacity to provide high throughput testing with 90 tests run every 90 minutes throughout the day, giving a result within 6 hours. 

Sian Ellard, Professor of Genomic Medicine at the University of Exeter, helped source testing equipment from researchers Dr Chris Scotton at the University of Exeter Medical School and from Professor Mike Allen at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Professor Ellard praised the close collaborative links between the Trust and the University saying, “The strong working relationship between outstanding clinicians and world-leading scientists in Exeter means we’re perfectly placed to lead the way in responding to international challenges of this nature.”

However, it’s not just about technology. The incredible amount of hard work and organisation required to scale up the testing so rapidly is down to the people at the Trust and its partner organisations, in particular the Biomedical Scientists and Support Staff in Microbiology.

Prof Adrian Harris, Medical Director at the RD&E, explains: “Clinical and non-clinical teams have worked around the clock, tirelessly and selflessly collaborating to provide an absolutely outstanding COVID-testing service. The staff in the Emergency Department will be staffing it 24/7 to ensure we maximise the testing capacity through the lab at all times. “Our microbiology team have transformed their normal working patterns, providing a 24-hour service. They’ve optimised our existing analysers, introduced new technology, and worked with other scientists from the Genomics team to perform these tests, which are so essential in the fight against this virus. “But all the science in the world is no use without the samples to actually test, and our Portering team has been superb in making sure that the test samples are collected and delivered smoothly from across the hospital. “I want to pay tribute to all our staff and our partners at the University, and also Devon Freewheelers who have been helping to carry out the swab testing in the community and hospital. It’s been an incredible collective effort, in the most challenging of circumstances.”

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