A new UK initiative connects scientists, laboratories, and hospitals in the fight against COVID-19
Paul Avery, Clare Russell | | Interview
What inspired the creation of Scientists on Standby?
Quite simply, the industry inspired us – and we felt an urgent need to help. Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, we’ve seen a continuous stream of activity from all areas of the life science sector. Consider the healthcare professionals working so hard in difficult environments to save patients’ lives, the innovative technology developers trying to repurpose diagnostic technology for COVID-19 testing, and the product design and automation experts supporting the drive to build and supply the large amount of ventilators required over the coming weeks… Watching this level of dedication and drive has been a humbling and inspirational experience.
From early on, we predicted that testing would be key to not only managing the outbreak of the infection and the safety of people on the front lines, but also understanding the epidemiology of the disease. Gaining a clearer picture of who is infected and who has recovered from the virus will help us understand the level of immunity in the population and safely manage a “back to work” plan to limit the economic impact of the pandemic.
We also anticipated that there might be a shortage of qualified scientists and technicians to process the sheer number of samples required, which prompted us to consider strategies for “getting ahead.” As ex-scientists, we had discussed volunteering our (slightly rusty) skills to help with testing – but we realized that we could have a bigger impact if we used our connections, partnerships, and communication skills to connect qualified scientists and technicians with the diagnostic labs who needed them.
How did you set up such a huge undertaking?
As we understand it, the United Kingdom’s target is 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day by the end of April. The UK has some of the best scientific and medical professionals and facilities in the world. However, connecting those and communicating effectively to get the right people in the right place at the right time can be challenging – especially under the immense pressure of a pandemic.
To assist, we created Scientists on Standby, a volunteer organization whose goal is to create a real-time network of overflow scientists, labs, and other partners who will work together to help meet testing needs. Essentially, our aim was to create a hub in the form of a web portal, where we collect information from scientists willing to volunteer to help with COVID-19 testing. At the moment, the most valuable skills lie in the areas of qPCR/RT-PCR, viral RNA extraction, liquid handling, and containment level 3 laboratory best practice. However, people who have closely (but not exactly) aligned experience should still put themselves forward, because many skills are transferrable and, depending on the level of need, labs may offer induction training for specific requirements.
Over the past few days, as we observed unmet needs in other areas, we expanded the remit of Scientists on Standby. As well as scientists wanting to apply their skills, we’re now seeking Category 3 labs suitable for COVID-19 testing and technology providers who can supply diagnostic tools and personal protective equipment. Together, we hope to create a network that streamlines sourcing and supply for COVID-19 diagnosis.
As of April 8, Scientists on Standby has been in operation for only one week, but has already had well over 200 registrants. We are now in the process of scaling up communication around the initiative to support the growing call for increased COVID-19 testing throughput. How? More collaboration with industry bodies, publishers, and conference organizers who can help us reach a wider community, as well as building strategic partnerships and supporting local groups. The success of our national screening and testing initiatives will likely be down to a concerted effort from participants of every size – from individuals with vital skills to large organizations and industry partners. We all play an essential role in the fight against COVID-19.
What happens when a scientist signs up?
Scientists register their details, including their expertise and location, and they join our database of – quite literally – “scientists on standby.” When we are contacted by labs or organizations in need of skilled resources, we let our members know of screening initiatives near them. Our registrants are grouped by location to make regional resourcing easier. So far, we have been contacted by government partners and organizations to support the recruitment of scientists to specific diagnostic labs across the country so that key workers – such as healthcare professionals – can receive testing.
Right now, we are focusing on the UK because we can provide the greatest value through our immediate network of local contacts, regional testing facilities, and national government initiatives. In addition, we – like many organizations in the current climate – are limited in terms of resources and are volunteering our scant spare time to coordinate this initiative, so it seems sensible to contain its scale. However, we have collected a few details of interested parties outside the UK and, in due course, we will seek out the best organization with whom to share that information.
Interested in participating? Visit scientistsonstandby.com for more information.