As the Covid-19 pandemic escalated in March of this year, the scientific community mobilised to support national efforts to understand and contain the virus. At P4 Precision Medicine Accelerator, we brought together academic institutions, private companies and leading researchers to coalesce around the need for increased capacity and innovation in Covid-19 testing. Over the coming weeks, our numbers and scope grew to include 11 members across the UK.
Our consortium crosses an array of disciplines and commercial markets. Member’s expertise lies in manufacturing laboratory equipment and resources, such as RNA extraction kits, performing RT-qPCR analysis, and carrying out Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) research. We estimated in our early stages that we had the capacity to process several thousand tests a day, with assured access to essential resources including reagents and RNA extraction kits. What was most impressive was the energy and commitment of our members to support the UK’s national response to the Covid-19 pandemic – dedicating time and resources altruistically.
However, our members have struggled to integrate into the national Covid-19 testing infrastructure, and witnessed a disconnect between the speed of the centralised coordinating structure and the agility of our consortium. We have found often the only points of contact available were generic email addresses or online submission forms, with no indication of when a response could be expected or any avenues to engage in dialogue with experts managing the UK’s testing effort. This raised questions of how this aspect of the UK’s pandemic response should be organised, with our members and partners calling for stronger communication channels and clearer delineation of responsibility, as at times it was uncertain which government executive agency was leading which aspect.
We appreciate of course that coordinating virus testing efforts on a national scale while ensuring rigorous quality and safety standards is an enormous task. Yet it was posited that having Public Health England (PHE) provide control materials and a central framework which institutions could demonstrate adherence to would allow for more seamless collaboration and rapid growth of Covid-19 testing capacity. The barriers to having their methods validated and lab consumables approved meant our members instead delivered testing for private health services, as well as supplying overseas markets. While still laudable, our members were frustrated at being unable to support the NHS.
The Crowdicity platform launched and managed by UK BioIndustry Association and partners was an excellent example of crowdsourcing innovation and providing an opportunity for those within the life sciences sector to stay abreast of each other’s work. They also hosted a series of webinars to detail the government’s evolving testing strategy and the resources required for its realisation. In future instances, evolving its functionality to facilitate more dialogue and provide ongoing updates would bring further collective intelligence to the life sciences community. Additionally, being able to access the insight of those coordinating the UK’s testing efforts through more intimate and interactive sessions would have allowed our consortium members to better develop their contribution.
We have seen huge advancements from collaboration within our consortium, with members sharing samples, research findings and contacts to support each other’s work. They have also collaborated in designing studies to validate each other’s findings and demonstrate scalability. Members have been successful in securing funding from both government and commercial sources, including Innovate UK, allowing them to further their research. The UK government’s calls for testing support has broadened to include tests using alternative sample sources and point of care testing, both of which are being developed by members of our consortium. We therefore hope to see further impact from our consortium’s efforts over the coming months.
In particular the use of NGS for SARS-CoV-2 antigen detection has the potential to transform the UK’s pandemic response, providing a massively scalable and cost effective testing solution. Two of our consortium members have developed protocols to perform NGS for Covid-19. One, Nucleome Therapeutics, is developing an ultra-high throughput test that has the potential to test for presence of viral nucleic acids in up to 10k samples simultaneously at low cost and with high sensitivity. The other, Nonacus Limited, is developing an assay that enables whole genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome to enable rapid surveillance of the COVID-19 outbreak and an understanding of virus evolution. Such monitoring of viral structure and mutations is crucial for an informed public health response, as well as supporting vaccine research. Nonacus is collaborating with PHE and King’s College London to validate this novel method as part of an Innovate grant.
As the UK enters the next stage of its Covid-19 response we are working to understand how we can best contribute to its success. Our consortium members are reorienting to support the test and trace strategy, including developing a ‘Return to Work’ scheme and mobile testing units. We hope to not only see the innovation of the last few months inform scientific understanding, but for key learnings on how to manage contributions from the life sciences sector to be taken forward for future pandemic response planning.
Davide Danovi, from King’s College London has engaged in the consortium as part of a multidisciplinary team led by OpenCell.bio that has developed a low-cost, rapidly deployable COVID-19 testing lab inside a shipping container that can process up to 2,400 tests per day.
‘The OpenCell modular testing laboratories provide a large number of tests using automation and can be moved easily and rapidly deployed to local communities. It is a great example of multi-disciplinary collaboration across academic, clinical and commercial settings providing immediate impact. The Little Boats consortium represented an amazing framework for us to share insights around the needs and discuss the progress of our innovative projects.’
- Dr Davide Danovi, King’s College London
Hutano Diagnostics has engaged with the consortium as part of a multidisciplinary team developing a COVID-19 digital antigen detection lateral flow device (LFD) and associated smartphone app. After adding saliva, the diagnosis is displayed on the LFD screen after 10 minutes, then communicated to the user’s smartphone by Bluetooth connection, enabling the use of online tools to track disease spread. The Little Boats consortium has increased our efficiency at navigating this uncertain time by helping us identify collaborators for our R&D, potential grant funding opportunities and support developing bids for these opportunities.
- Atherton Mutombwera, CEO & Founder, Hutano Diagnostics Ltd.
Nonacus Limited is a developer of innovative products for genetic testing. During the COVID-19 crisis we have re-purposed development and manufacturing to rapidly develop high throughput extraction and qRT-PCR methods for analysing SARS-CoV-2. We are now using our existing sequencing experience to develop a novel NGS method for surveillance and monitoring of SARS-CoV-2.
- Chris Sale, CEO and Co-Founder, Nonacus Ltd.
Nucleome Therapeutics is a spinout from Oxford University that is unlocking the human genetic variation located in the largely unexplored 98% of the genome for drug target discovery and development. Nucleome’s team has a track record in developing next generation sequencing solutions. “In response to COVID-19 crisis, we have decided to use our expertise to develop a massively scalable testing solution for SARS-CoV-2. The Little Boats consortium provided a vital collaborative platform for us where members openly shared their progress, resources, knowledge and solutions, helping us accelerate the work.”
- Dr Danuta Jeziorska, CEO & co-founder, Nucleome Therapeutics