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As one of the few labs in Queensland conducting COVID-19 testing for the state, Mater’s Cellular Molecular Diagnostics team have been undertaking a momentous project to get COVID-19 testing up and running.
On a normal working day, Mater’s Cellular Molecular Diagnostics (CMD) Laboratory’s, Molecular Microbiology team of four will be in the lab from around 7.30 am through to 5 pm running various clinical tests throughout the day—from influenza through to faecal screens.
Today, in partnership with public health authorities, the CMD team comprises nine staff, rotating on a 6 am to midnight shift schedule, running back-to-back COVID-19 tests, conducting an average of 80 tests each day.
To meet the needs of Queensland’s testing criteria and to support public health efforts to make COVID-19 testing readily available to those who need it, the CMD team had to quickly transform their systems, extend their scope and source the appropriate reagents required for specific Coronavirus testing. They also undertook a complete lab overhaul that would ordinarily take three months of preparation and implementation—completed in just one week.
Supervising Scientist at Mater’s CMD lab, Kathryn Just said this had been an exciting opportunity for the team to work together to provide accurate, quick and safe test results for the community.
“Our entire team went in head first for this project—completely redefining our business-as-usual testing capacity, as well as undertaking specific training for Coronavirus testing,” Kathryn said.
With a single Coronavirus test taking upwards of five hours to obtain a clear positive or negative result, within each shift, members of the CMD team will run multiple tests at once all at different stages dependent on when they receive samples, mostly from Mater Hospital Brisbane Emergency Department (ED).
When the ED team perform a COVID-19 test, the swab is transported through to Mater’s central specimen reception where the swab is registered and mixed with saline.
Kathryn says this first stage is what they call a transformative step, converting the sample from a dry swab to a liquid suspension.
Phase 2 sees the sample brought into the CMD lab where it is processed to isolate and purify the genetic material.
“At this point the virus has been partially inactivated allowing us to begin the next stage of the process” said Kathryn.
Phase 3 sees copies of the virus amplified exponentially to a level where the presence (or absence) of the target virus can be measured.
“Phase 3 takes approximately four hours and the end result is that we can determine if the sample contains influenza or coronavirus, or another respiratory virus entirely.”
Once results are loaded into CMD’s digital system and aligned with other patient tests, the lab will see a clear picture of whether COVID-19 is present or not.
Kathryn said that whilst the CMD lab is now fully established as a COVID-19 testing facility, with the federal and state directives and testing criteria continuing to change, the team has needed to adapt to the evolving situation.
“As a team, we are constantly checking our processes and testing to ensure what we are doing is in line with our local, state and federal peers,” Kathryn said.
Kathryn said the emergence of COVID-19 has been a significant challenge for her team to overcome.
“Like anything new, this virus is constantly changing and so we have had to change our capacity, testing requirements, training and level of responsibility too,” she said.
“Dealing with the ever-changing and demanding nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult at times but the entire team feels proud of the impact they are having on keeping both our community safe.”
The CMD team continue to adapt to the pandemic by providing vital results for both Mater and Queensland’s public health cohort.
You can learn more about COVID-19 and how Mater is contributing to Queensland's pandemic response here.
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