Milton Keynes laboratory now testing COVID-19 samples 24/7

UK Biocentre analyses samples including the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

More than 150 scientists from academia and industry have joined staff at UK Biocentre to test tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples every day. UK Biocentre laboratories in Milton Keynes have been transformed to analyse swab samples at industrial scale to support the national effort against the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples are being sent to UK Biocentre every day from the drive through testing centres, mobile testing units and other sites. Home testing kits are also being sent to the laboratory in Milton Keynes for analysis. All swab samples – which are anonymous – are tested within 24 hours and the outcome of every test is then uploaded electronically and sent to the relevant organisation.

On 28 April a batch of additional samples arrived from HMS Queen Elizabeth – the Royal Navy’s largest ever warship and the future UK flagship – and were analysed overnight enabling the ship to set sail from Portsmouth.

The testing has enabled the aircraft carrier to sail from Portsmouth (29 April) to ensure she is ready to conduct her first operational deployment in 2021. The Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier will undergo several weeks of training and assessment with the staff of Flag Officer Sea Training to ensure the UK can deliver on its commitment to have a Carrier Strike Group ready to deploy from the end of this year. The training will include more qualifying training for UK F35 Lightning fighter jet crews, who will be conducting practice manoeuvres from her decks, giving vital experience to the aircrews and ship’s company involved in air operations.

Dr Tony Cox, UK Biocentre CEO, said:
“It is an honour for us to support the national testing effort by analysing samples from NHS staff, other frontline workers and their families – and this week on behalf of the Royal Navy. As the number of people being tested for COVID-19 increases, we are now analysing tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples each day.”

“Our 24/7 operation would not be possible without the support of universities and other partners who have loaned us equipment and the volunteer scientists who are using their expertise to oversee the liquid handling robots, the RNA extraction, the PCR reagent and other vital elements of our process.”

Thanks to vital support from partners, UK Biocentre has expanded rapidly by installing state-of-the-art robotic equipment and other technology enabling scientists to analyse at industrial scale. Large amounts of equipment needed to provide a fully automated service have been installed. Accuracy remains the number one priority and UK Biocentre continues to be supported by the NHS and PHE to ensure the highest standards of accuracy are achieved at industrial scale.

To meet the growing demand, UK Biocentre’s staff team has been joined by an army of more than 150 volunteer scientists – including molecular scientists, technicians and bioinformaticians – to deliver a high throughput, 24/7 analysis service for as long as is needed.

Dr Daniel Patten, a post-doctoral researcher at University of Birmingham, who is volunteering at UK Biocentre as a laboratory assistant, said:
“As a laboratory scientist, I possessed the right skills that were required to volunteer here – the same skills and techniques that I use every week. Many university labs are closed as a consequence of the lockdown and so it’s fantastic to be in the lab and actively contributing to our understanding of this virus. It’s been genuinely incredible to work on this and a fantastic experience. Normally as a researcher, you’d hope to make a key difference over the long-term in your specialty; however, working at the UK Biocentre we can have an immediate impact and could potentially be saving thousands of lives by supporting this national testing effort.”

UK Biocentre is working closely with colleagues at the other two Lighthouse Labs in Glasgow and Cheshire, and is proud to acknowledge the many private and public organisations who are partnering in this unprecedented effort, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Tecan and Brooks, as well as Public Health England, NHS England and the Department for Health and Social Care.