27 November 2020

How US Labs are Adapting to COVID-19.

CM Life Science By CM Life Science

Working with multiple North American laboratory testing services, CM Life Science has seen businesses respond to the global pandemic in a variety of different, innovative ways. With many traditional products taking a hit, US labs have diversified their offerings and found solutions to challenges in supply chain and lab safety.

To gain further insight into how labs have adapted, the CM Life Science team spoke to three North American market leaders in laboratory testing services about how they’ve supported the US healthcare system.

Our conversations started at Eurofins which is a world leader in food, environment, pharma product testing and agroscience CRO services. The company has a global network of 800 laboratories with nearly 50,000 employees across 50 countries.

Eurofins responded to COVID-19 through its subsidiary Viracor, a leading infectious disease testing laboratory that's been around for 35 years. 

President of Viracor and Eurofins Transplant Diagnostics in the US, David L. Morgan II

CM Life Science spoke to the President of Viracor and Eurofins Transplant Diagnostics in the US, David L. Morgan II. He explained how certain areas of Eurofins’ business has taken a hit because of the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit the US, we started to see clinical chemistry, hematology and anatomic pathology drying up because people are not going to the doctors. Plus, many hospitals didn't have the resources to treat anything other than acute care patients.

To compensate for this and to support the fight against COVID-19, Eurofins has released testing for the detection of SARS-CoV-2. It currently processes around 500,000 samples per week, with an average turnaround time of 24-48 hours. This makes Eurofins one of the top three providers of tests in the US.

Eurofins has also introduced antibody testing services based on the ELISA (Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay) technique. These help people that may have been sick, but could not be tested, determine if they already have antibodies as a result of exposure to COVID-19.

On top of this, the company has released a CE-IVD marked rapid point-of-care finger-prick testing devices to identify past exposure to COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) in only 10 minutes, with a sensitivity of 94.5% from 19 days following the onset of symptoms.

The company has also launched its first at-home COVID-19 nasal PCR test. The FDA-authorized, self-collection kit gives consumers a painless, convenient and quick option to detect the virus from the comfort of their homes. Results are reviewed by a licensed physician and provided via email within 24 hours of sample receipt.

Eurofins' innovative COVID-19 assays also include pooled, wastewater, worn-mask, saliva and combined COVID-19, Influenza and RSV tests.

Unsurprisingly, David is very proud of what his team has achieved in response to the pandemic.

While supply chain has been a challenge for many labs including Eurofins and Viracor, the US company has found innovative and effective ways to work around this. For example, a proportion of assay manufacturing has been brought in-house.

We looked at our supply chain and said, ‘what portion of this can we do ourselves?’ It's not that we don't have great relationships with manufacturers, but thank goodness we are platform agnostic.

Despite not relying on partnerships for manufacturing, the complex structure of the US healthcare system has meant that various other relationships have been crucial.

The healthcare system in the US gets complicated, right? Some of the laboratories that I run don't have insurance contracts to get reimbursed. So, it precludes them from servicing certain patients in certain geographic areas or nationally for that matter.

David continued to explain how in this competitive environment a lot of the national laboratories have exclusive relationships with insurers. So, despite having the capacity to service particular parts of the US, Viracor has had to secure major insurance plans before this can go ahead.

Another company that should be equally proud of its ability to adapt during COVID-19 is Underwriters Laboratories (UL), which is headquartered in Northbrook, Illinois.

UL is one of the leading TIC firms in the world and has a large life science and healthcare business in the US. I spoke to Upayan Sengupta who is Vice President & General Manager of Life Sciences and Health Sciences at the business, working out of Austin, Texas.

Vice President & General Manager of Life Sciences and Health Sciences, Upayan Sengupta

Upayan claimed that the company has had to adapt to meet the spike in demand for areas such as PPE, ventilators and testing. The company has also entered new areas to combat COVID-19 like thermography, which includes technology that uses of a type of UV light (UVC) to sterilize equipment, as well as infrared cameras to check an individual’s temperature.

We’ve shifted a little bit more towards new technology, emerging products, new use cases. UVC is an emerging technology used in the sanitation of equipment and is very much in demand at the moment.

Upayan went onto explain how thermography technology is also being applied to building equipment to track and trace individuals through hospitals and office buildings.

That’s not all UL has been up to, as part of this diversified approach, the company has also collaborated with different manufacturers to help  modify technologies and take them to market in response to COVID-19. For example, Upayan told me of how he’d worked with a brewery to help it adapt its technology to produce breathing equipment.

UL’s ability to shift so quickly and naturally work with these different technologies is credit to its talent management strategy. Being a large corporation, it has had the stability and security to focus on important initiatives such as bolstering its focus on diversity & inclusion - filling critical gaps in expertise.

As the coronavirus hit, different competitors went through belt tightening, but we saw the opportunity to focus on increasing the strength of UL’s talent.

However, even with talented staff, many companies have found it challenging to adapt and work effectively throughout the pandemic. For this, embracing digital technology has been crucial.

Upayan claimed that one of the biggest things the company has learnt throughout this period is how working remotely can increase productivity. Now the company are working smarter with clients on a remote basis to share information, gather requirements and so on.

Like UL, Microbac Laboratories has worked hard to diversity its product offering and meet the demands created by COVID-19 - pioneering several methods of testing through its specialist virology and molecular biology division.

Microbac is a family owned business and one of the US leaders in food, environmental and life science testing services.

I spoke to the Director for Molecular Biology at the Microbac laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Dr. Aaron Peacock, and the Director of Virology & Molecular Biology, Dr. Steven Zhou, of the BSL-3 Lab in Sterling, Virginia location.

The two told me how the business has had a 400% increase in inquiries because of its COVID-19 testing, with support from its food testing service contributing to this spike too.

We looked at what we could offer that would be beneficial, both in a business sense and what would help with what's going on.

Dr. Aaron Peacock

Microbac’s SARS-CoV-2 Environmental Surface Test is one of a handful of surface tests on the market, with the product an effective way to validate cleaning and disinfection procedures for businesses with high-touch areas.

One of the big concerns was about whether disinfectants were strong enough to kill the virus on high touch surfaces like pin pads, computer keyboards, door handles and so on. That’s why it was important to develop this surface swab testing.

Dr. Aaron Peacock

Aaron went on to explain that while this COVID-19 test was a new product, the technology used for it isn’t far off how environmental testing works – something that Microbac already offers. So, adapting to the demand wasn’t as difficult for them as it has been for others.

Microbac has also released a COVID-19 wastewater testing and analysis service, which identifies contamination in influent and effluent wastewater using RT-qPCR to perform the analysis. This was developed by Peacock and was the first test of its type to enter the market.

Microbac can test, analyse and monitor water samples collected from wastewater treatment facilities for coronavirus RNA, the genetic signature of coronaviruses.

Ongoing monitoring of RNA in wastewater provides states and communities with valuable data to: measure the prevalence of COVID-19 within a community, track the spread of the virus and alert communities to a rise in RNA levels (infections) before clinical diagnoses occur.

A lot of colleges and universities wanted to bring students back onto campus and they wanted a way to be able to provide early warning. To support this, we needed to focus on wastewater testing.

Dr. Aaron Peacock

This is another example of how Microbac has successfully adapted to meet demand, which somewhat explains the growth in business that’s been generated throughout the pandemic.

While this is great for business, it has led to a higher volume of work at arguably one of the trickiest times the Microbac Laboratories teams have ever faced. Steve explained that for a variety of reasons, people at his lab have had to stay home, which is problematic when there’s not much scope for offsite work.

Despite all the challenges that COVID-19 has thrown at labs in the US, Microbac, UL and Eurofins have proven how resolute and innovative this market really is. Adaptability has been the key, with different solutions being thought up for supply chain and communicative challenges, as well as new tests being created from existing technology.

It’s a pleasure to serve this innovative market and I'm excited to see more successes come from these companies as we continue to battle this global pandemic.

If you are interested in discussing any of the points raised in this article or would like to speak to us about CM Life Science's recruitment services, please get in touch with us here.

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