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Inside the Lab Technology and innovation, Laboratory management, COVID-19

Teamwork for COVID-19 Testing

sponsored by Automata

The University Hospital Southampton (UHS) NHS Foundation Trust was faced with a tremendous challenge: to distribute a newly developed, rapid form of asymptomatic COVID-19 testing in the UK to Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The testing – called RT-LAMP – used a “no-swab” saliva test that benefits from higher sensitivity, faster turnaround, and less invasive collection than other methods (1). The issue, however, was that testing had to be not only fast, but also work on a massive scale; schools, colleges, and universities would be relying on this rollout to deliver results within 24–48 hours.

Expanding the use of RT-LAMP testing beyond the few schools involved in a local pilot study was not simple. Demand for testing exceeded thousands each day and, with mounting COVID-19 restrictions and limited technicians available, there were significant roadblocks in scaling the process to the necessary requirements. UHS soon realized that the laboratory needed to use machines – and, with the help of Automata, they set out to create an automated workflow for large-scale COVID-19 testing. This project was the first of its kind, meaning that each step would require bespoke equipment, processes, and systems to push the bounds of automation as far as possible.

Success was no mean feat – and it was thanks to the flexible nature of Automata’s designers and engineers that the project was even possible. UHS initially suffered from teething issues with other providers before ultimately settling on Automata, who had already been on board as a robotics supplier and had pitched a flexible, integrated platform. The partnership meant that Automata could supply custombuilt machine solutions and marry its own robotic automation technology with that of other market leaders.

Though automation is bound to require cutting-edge technology, engineers were keen to integrate the lab’s existing instruments into the new system to save costs and ease the acclimatization process for staff. This created a unique mixture of repurposed, new, and purpose-built laboratory solutions, including integrated barcode scanning, a process that tracks each vial that enters and exits the system. Machine-aided tracking eliminates the risk of human error in manual methods – a highly desirable and repeatable result that is ideal for a national clinical facility.

Advantages of automation

• Data traceability increases test turnaround speed

• Improved scalability facilitates higher throughput goals and lowered potential transmission

• Reduced reliance on manual interactions in lab processes

One of the project’s main goals was to pair the quality and consistency of a standard operating procedure with the flexibility and speed of an automated system. Meanwhile, engineers were tasked with transforming a humanfocused workflow to one designed for machines. This required a collaborative and dynamic approach. A service team intimately familiar with the technology was stationed on-site to make any necessary changes to the laboratory’s requirements on an ad hoc basis. This proactive approach enabled engineers to actively participate in the implementation and development stages, minimizing wasted time.

Of course, technology is moot if lab technicians find the system cumbersome. Perhaps more impressive than the precision and speed of the automated system is the fact that it can all be controlled from a single smart tablet. The user experience is intuitive, functional, and practical for use by individual technicians – with great potential for labs across medical fields.

The successful six-month turnaround of an automated, mass-scale testing facility within the University Hospital Southampton (UHS) NHS Foundation Trust is a sign that diagnostics automation is not only our future, but also our present.

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  1. Automata (2022). Available at: https://bit.ly/3LSwwze.
About the Author
George Lee

Associate Editor, The Pathologist

Like most people, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after university. But one thing was certain – writing would play a central role. Not one to walk the path most traveled, I decided to spend my next few years freelancing to hone my skills as a writer and further cement my love for language. Reaching people through writing is important to me and I look forward to connecting with thousands of people through Texere’s passionate audience.

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