Behind the scenes: Adapting diagnostic services during a pandemic – 11 November 2021

The diagnostic testing business has always been dynamic and opportunistic, but nothing could have stretched the definition of these 2 words like a pandemic.

Since the launch of Yourgene Genomic Services 6 months into this global pandemic – born from a legacy, well established NIPT service laboratory, a modest acquisition, and an unprecedented national genomic testing demand, we have vastly expanded our testing capacity by converting every spare inch of underutilised office space created by remote working into high specification diagnostic laboratories capable of handling >15,000 pathogenic samples a day.

Sounds uncomplicated on paper. But what does this journey really look like?

Day 1 – Fascinated and curious. A chapter not one of us has ever experienced before, and as scientists, being at the forefront of understanding and supporting the control of the spread of a disease causing severe social and economic disruption, although unsettling, is captivating.

Month 1 – Moving quickly. Breaking the conventions on how testing regimes are typically launched, we introduce a new service into the market in a matter of weeks.

Month 6 – It’s not going away, lets plan for growth.  Regularly testing hundreds of samples a day, we become skilled in the service provision and take the unique position of being the first laboratory in the UK to offer SARS-CoV-2 PCR testing with our own CE-marked product and plan for growth. Knocking down walls, hiring more talent and investing in automation to build an efficient operation to cater for 1000+ samples a day, equating to a larger daily capacity than a laboratory of our size at the time would receive in months.

Another lockdown. Not anticipated, COVID-19 spreads like wildfire and the UK moves into 4 to 5 months of tiered to complete isolation. The DHSC and UKAS provide governance and structure for the hundreds of laboratories offering COVID-19 testing services in the UK steering our efforts into compliance, audits and various due diligence hurdles from the government never seen before. We adapt to the rapidly evolving and new regulatory requirements for PCR testing. Soon to follow, alarming new variants of the virus arise and a national request for genome sequencing services calls. As one of the handful of laboratories in the UK with Next Generation Sequencing capability (a complex genetic technology) we step up to the challenge, this time launching the service in just a matter of days!! Remembering only 6 months ago launching a much simpler service within weeks was uncharacteristic. 

Yet uncertain at every month where our place is in the market, we wait.

Year 1 – Preparing for something, but what? A year into the pandemic with almost half spent in isolation the UK looks to open international doors. Let’s prepare the laboratory, but what are we preparing for? Numerous executive discussions and options are proposed, and we take what we believe is the most opportunistic yet de-risked approach to supply the demand by holding our capacity while poising ourselves for growth if the demand arrives.

Summer #2 – Madness! The UK borders fully open up and the world demands safety in PCR testing and new variant surveillance. Now rubber stamped as an ISO15189 Medical Laboratory and Service Provider we offer an assured service to airports, pharmacies, clinics and retailers. At peak we receive over 15,000 samples a day!! 15,000 samples a day! That’s more tests received in a normal year in one day. Mind-blowing.

Each day calls for a transformative decision, out-of-box ideas arise several times a day during our now 24 hours a day, 7 days a week operation. Innovation becomes an hourly mantra. We knock down more walls. We reconfigure our laboratories. For those of you that have never worked in a laboratory, changes take weeks of design, months of construction, followed by weeks to months of validation. We do this 5 times…in 8 weeks!

We use robotics never used in the genomics testing space. Weeks later we start to work with the manufacturer to adapt their novel robotics to provide further customised capabilities.

A community of talent grows, the team – a jump from 15 to 75 staff – becomes a family, seeing people unlock potential they never even knew they had. And we see this daily.

By the Autumn this becomes our conventional way of working. Ultra-dynamic and exceptionally opportunistic becomes the new norm in diagnostic services.