Inside a coronavirus test lab

How many tests did you usually process in a day?

Beth: When I was on the first step, inactivating the virus, I had 94 samples on each plate and it took between an hour and an hour and a half to do one plate. The most I ever did was around ten plates in a day. On my shifts we did around 20,000 tests. Milton Keynes was the biggest testing centre in the country, so our lab was a big chunk of the daily totals. The scientific process itself was quite fast, so I think the main delay in receiving results came from delivering the tests to the centre and then sending the results back.

Ben: Our boss would tell us every day how many we had completed in a shift. I think we did around 20,000 in 12 hours. They had a panel of results that told you how many were positive and negative.


What did your role involve?

Beth: We switched around different stages, but I spent a lot of time doing the first step, inactivating the virus. I opened the sample tube and put the contents on a testing plate. This step could either be done by hand or by robots. I didn’t really use the robots but by the time I left, they had doubled the number of robots to make things faster. While the robot was doing the work, you would always have to keep up with it and make sure all the lids were off for it and set up the tubes in place. You worked at the robot’s speed, so it was quite manic.

Ben: We spent a lot of time on one particular process, but we were able to do all of them as they needed to make sure if people left, or became ill, they could slot another person into that role and it wouldn’t slow down. Ideally, they wanted us to switch processes as a rest from repetitive jobs, but their priority was to keep the volume of tests going.


How accurate do you think the tests are?

Beth: As time goes on they will definitely be getting more and more accurate, but when I was there they were still finding their feet with how the test worked and what the good controls were to include. I don’t know the percentage error at the moment, but when I was there I think it was a 30 per cent error rate. That’s fairly high, but you have to remember that, in normal science, you do everything at least three times, whereas there you have one go at it. I do PCR tests a lot, and the threshold would usually be pretty high. But, in this circumstance it was low because they wanted to account for any detection of the virus. There are a lot of factors that can influence a test and I think when you do a test you should take it with a pinch of salt. You should definitely question a negative result if you know you have symptoms.


How different was this lab to the one you usually work in?

Beth: It was so different because we were told to turn off our science brains. You had to follow standard operating procedures really rigidly and there was no room for doing things your way. Even if you thought that there was a better way, you’d have to take it a lot higher up for that to be implemented. The main difference was that the implication of everything I did was a lot bigger. When I’m in the lab in Leeds, if I mess up it just gives me more hours of work, but in the COVID labs, that’s a person’s sample. Especially when it was whole care homes, you wanted it to be right. There’s only one sample for each person so you have to get it right the first time or that person has to do the test again, and I think it’s quite a traumatic test.

Ben: You were very much a cog in the wheel. You were part of a process that worked, so you didn’t have to improve it. Normally, in a research setting I’m often tweaking it. If I do a practical and something isn’t right, I can change it. That’s a big thing in science and I know a lot of people struggled with not being able to do that. We weren’t told much about the theory behind it and in a research setting that’s unheard of. Usually I know exactly how each technique works. If something goes wrong I can troubleshoot, whereas in this lab I was going in, pipetting and then leaving again. I quite enjoyed switching off and focusing on one technique. Obviously we were bothered about the final result, but that was someone else’s job. I just had to do my job and make sure it was done right.


Was there anything that surprised you about the lab?

Beth: There was no PPE a lot of the time when we were all together. We had to wear PPE when we were handling the virus samples, but because we had to work really close together there was less focus on socially distancing with each other. I was surprised with how little thinking I was required to do. I remember thinking ‘what if I don’t know enough?’ and ‘what if I’m completely out of my depth?’ but we just had to use manpower. I had also never seen such a big scale operation, because I had always worked in really tiny labs.

Ben: The application said that you would need a lot of experience, but I met one person who started who was a college student and she didn’t even know how to pipette. That’s no insult to her because I didn’t know how to pipette when I was a college student, but you don’t expect a college student to be in a diagnostic laboratory working on the Coronavirus. It was quite startling. I think that was a rarity though, and I like to think that when they started hiring people full-time they had a more thorough interview process.


Are you glad you volunteered?

Beth: I’m really happy I did it and the whole experience was really eye opening. I worked with scientists of all backgrounds and of all ages and there was no hierarchy. So that was a really unique experience that I will never really get again.

Ben: I’m definitely glad I did it and it was different to anything I have experienced. I think I’ve grown a lot as a person doing it and know how much I can push myself. It was really stressful at the time, but looking back it’s nice to know that I helped out during this pandemic. If I hadn’t applied for it I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.

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