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Running a lab in the time of COVID-19.

We sat down with Pingping Zhuang, Deputy General Manager of our UK Sequencing Centre, to discuss the challenges around keeping a sequencing lab running during the global pandemic. It was great to finally meet her in person, and we had a very insightful chat! Keep reading to see what Pingping had to say about the positives and negatives the Cambridge lab experienced during the last year and a half.

Why did Novogene need to stay open during COVID?
Novogene is classified as an essential service as our work contributes to many time-sensitive and lifesaving clinical projects. We work with universities and biopharma companies that need to continue treating patients and running clinical trials. The sequencing results we provide for clinical settings often act as a diagnostic reference and lead to decisions regarding best treatment practices. These are projects that are urgent and require a quick turnaround time. Our research institute clients, many of whom work on disease research, also required ongoing support and service. Much of their work can lead to important medical breakthroughs. They couldn’t afford to come to a complete standstill, so Novogene were there to assist. Alongside this we also contributed our sequencing expertise to COVID research to contribute to the pandemic response.

What needed to be done to remain open safely?
We referred to all government and WHO policies and guidelines and carried out risk assessments to ensure we could operate safely. We put measures in place to mitigate any risks we identified such as unsanitary door handles and where social distancing was difficult to maintain. This required some careful planning for unavoidable situations such as when two people needed to work in close contact for samples that required double checking.

What were these measures, how did you implement them?
Firstly, a huge thank you to our incredibly supportive laboratory staff! Without them nothing would have run as smoothly as it did. They understood how important the measures were to keep the lab running safely and were really flexible with work patterns We have been wearing surgical masks in the lab since March 2020, and even though they can be uncomfortable to wear all day there were never any complaints.

The measures implemented included sanitising of surfaces and doorhandles three to four times daily and twice daily temperature checks. Once lateral flow tests were introduced, we provided kits for daily testing. We now do this instead of temperature checks. These daily tasks were delegated to the team members and recorded in logbooks to ensure they were carried out properly.
We were lucky that the layout of our lab is very conducive to social distancing. It is made up of separate rooms for each step in the sequencing process – sample QC, library preparation, sequencing, etc so there was very little physical cross-over between teams. We pretty much had ready-made bubbles so we wouldn’t have needed to isolate the whole lab at once.

What were the outcomes of the safety measures you implemented?
Firstly, we’re delighted to say that we had no positive cases among our team for the entire first year of the pandemic. As a direct result of this we didn’t have to close the lab at all. We’re proud on both scores as it shows how diligently the team followed the new rules. There have been two positive cases since July 2021, however both were due to the lifting of restrictions outside of the workplace. Thankfully neither case came in contact with their colleagues within the incubation period, so there was no need for anyone else to isolate. Over the course of the pandemic the lab managed to obtain ISO certification, GCLP and HTA accreditation during what was an extremely challenging year, another thing we are all very proud of.

How is the lab operating now?
Over the course of the last year the team has tripled in size. Once everyone who was furloughed was offered their job back, we started a big recruitment drive to meet the ever-increasing workload. The pandemic threw up some unexpected challenges to recruiting new staff. The uncertainty caused by the pandemic meant people were less willing to relocate or travel, worried that they may have trouble returning home if harsh restrictions came back into place. Despite that we managed to hire some highly skilled scientists who are ensuring we continue to meet our high standards. We expect to double in size again by this time next year!

It is also clear that we need to continue to implement the safety measures applied at the height of the pandemic, despite the general easing of restrictions. This is partially due to our increasing team which makes social distancing more of a challenge to maintain, but also due to how important the work we carry out at Novogene is to our customers. Having to shut the lab for even a couple of days could have a hugely negative impact on our customers whose projects are clinically sensitive and require rapid turnaround times. That we remained open during the most challenging part of the pandemic gives us the confidence that we will always be able to provide our crucial services without interruption.