PCR testing is largely misunderstood work. But thanks to the extraordinary efforts of lab technicians, scientists, and pathologists throughout the fightback against COVID-19, laboratory professionals are starting to receive the plaudits they have always so thoroughly deserved.
While frontline workers such as doctors and nurses have rightfully been celebrated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the ones processing SARS-CoV-2 samples — the lab workers — are just as critical to the collective response to the virus. Without the support and vital insights provided by an army of industrious lab scientists, frontline health workers would be firing blind.
Tests carried out in the laboratory are central to the entire health ecosystem. According to the CDC, <70% of all medical decisions are based on lab results. It seems unfair, then, that lab professionals are rarely classified as essential workers.
Lab scientists have always been well-regarded for their high level of proficiency and attention to detail, but the pandemic has pushed this to the limit — and required them to work at a feverish pace.
Working long hours in clinical laboratories — often around-the-clock with little sleep — they have played a pivotal role in rapidly diagnosing cases of COVID-19 and preventing its spread. In many instances, they are the reason entire industries have been able to stay functioning and avoid complete collapse.
Before the first COVID vaccines were approved in late 2020, mass testing was the only reliable way to trace, contain, and treat the virus. The burden placed on lab professionals has been huge, and burnout has been common — particularly given how demanding and meticulous polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing is.
Stopping the virus in its tracks
PCR tests are the most common type of COVID test performed by laboratory professionals. They involve isolating and detecting the virus’ RNA (genetic material) in the cells collected on a nasal swab. While RNA is similar to DNA, RNA is a single strand folded into itself (as opposed to DNA’s double strand).
Once RNA has been detected, the next step is to convert it into DNA. This DNA is then replicated millions of times to make it even easier to detect. If the genetic material for SARS-CoV-2 is still detected, the patient is confirmed as having COVID-19.
Quickly identifying a COVID-positive patient means the team can immediately refer the patient to health professionals and prevent them from spreading the virus to others — saving lives in the process.
Of course, most patients don’t see the lab. Operating behind the scenes, lab scientists might not get the same coverage as frontline workers, but they’re equally as diligent and resilient. Processing thousands of tests each day is no mean feat, particularly during coronavirus spikes that threatened to overwhelm the entire healthcare system.
Since the pandemic began, lab technicians and scientists across the globe have carried out a virtually uninterrupted diagnostics programme. In doing so, they’ve given physicians the means to administer more effective therapeutic treatments for COVID.
The rise of the remote laboratory
In response to the pandemic, bespoke remote testing teams have sprung up all over the world — providing tailored solutions to different organisations’ specific needs and ensuring that industries can keep operating safely. This visibility, as much as anything, has helped raise the profile of lab professionals and shine the spotlight on what their work entails.
As part of the global mass testing drive, SRG’s scientific service provider Synergy has supported Cignpost Diagnostics — a U.K. government-approved COVID-19 testing provider — in the swift delivery of highly experienced scientific professionals for rapid onsite testing.
Cignpost Diagnostics was established to help businesses of all sizes create safe working environments during the pandemic. The screening service provides onsite and offsite testing for COVID-19, as well as consultancy services to ensure clients’ employees can work safely. Cignpost Diagnostics' complete end-to-end testing solution helps businesses get back up and running and represents the gold standard for the industry.
As the pandemic progressed, Cignpost Diagnostics sought to pivot their existing services and approached Synergy for assistance in hiring, onboarding, training, and managing the team required for the projects they had recently won.
The Cignpost Diagnostics team needed a rapidly scalable model that allowed them to provide on-location scientists to keep the PGA Golf Tournament running, as well as various high-profile TV and film set locations around the U.K. In other words, they needed scientists willing to temporarily relocate and join mobile teams that could deliver timely, accurate results.
Lab technicians and scientists were quick to address the call. Within the space of five months, Cignpost Diagnostics had, with Synergy’s resourcing support, assembled talented teams of lab professionals across twenty-three global locations. By remaining agile and following meticulous COVID testing protocols for employees, these highly mobile teams ensured that major global events could safely go ahead.
Without their steadfast commitment to rapidly test everyone involved, these events would not only have been cancelled, but the virus may have spread further.
The work continues
Despite being largely hidden from view, lab professionals have always been at the forefront of the major developments in medicine — from 19th-century lab tests to identify cholera to the pandemic response units of the early 21st century. Indeed, the existence of a strong, longstanding laboratory infrastructure has proven crucial over the last year.
Even now, COVID sampling rarely stops. Thousands of tests are carried out in numerous locations and containers of test swabs continually stream into the lab. But teamwork makes the dream work — as the saying goes — and the camaraderie at the heart of a COVID testing team is the driving force behind their vital work.
At the time of writing, over 85 million COVID tests had been performed in the UK alone — at a rate of almost 600,000 a day. As mass vaccine programmes enable societies to slowly reopen and gain some respite from the virus, the public is finally starting to see the true extent of the role that laboratory scientists, technicians, and technologists continue to play.