Pakistan’s first automated COVID-19 testing lab opens

Islamabad: Pakistan’s first automated COVID-19 testing lab has been introduced in Islamabad that can analyze up to 2,000 samples in a single day to meet the increasing demand for coronavirus testing.

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Future Labs, the robotic mobile testing facility, has been launched by Pakistan’s Future Trust organization by JS Group in partnership with OpenCell UK to augment the country’s efforts to enhance COVID-19 testing. Pakistan is currently conducting approximately 30,000 tests a day.

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2,000 tests a day

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The automated lab is a Biosafety Level 2 plus (BSL2+) facility designed and equipped to meet the COVID-19 RT-qPCR testing requirement. Due to the use of 5 liquid handling robots, the lab requires as little as six staff members to operate shifts. The lab can process over 2,000 tests per day. The lab will be managed by Pakistan’s genetic testing laboratory, Medfer Diagnostics. The facility aims “to enable rapid scale-up of testing capacity and make it accessible and affordable” for all.

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Pakistan-UK partnership

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British High Commissioner Christian Turner inaugurated the facility in Islamabad and said that the initiative was “a vibrant example of a UK-Pakistan relationship” built on people. “UK is proud to be at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 in its efforts to pursue a vaccine and its distribution internationally”, as well as to “provide development assistance to a broad spectrum of COVID-19 relief, through UK Aid, to Pakistan,” he said. He also congratulated the premier’s aide on health, Dr Faisal Sultan, OpenCell UK and JS Group for their efforts to set up the “best automated lab in Pakistan.”

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Ali Jehangir Siddiqui, Pakistan’s ambassador-at-large for foreign investments, thanked the British High Commissioner for his support for the project. The partnership represents the close ties shared by Pakistan and UK as well as the critical need for “partnership in life sciences” all across the world. He expressed hope for “more Pakistan-UK partnerships in the near future.”

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Head of Molecular Biology for Future Labs, Dr Azeem Butt, welcomed the initiative and said that it was heartening to see corporate organizations focusing on innovative technologies to fight the deadly virus.

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Automated lab facts

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• 2,000 tests a day per container

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• 6 staff members

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• Stackable for larger testing facilities

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• Mobile facility can reach locations of need

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How it works

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The lab uses low-cost liquid handling robots developed to perform the gold standard for COVID-19 testing (RT-qPCR) to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The three-stage testing process includes: Station A (sample handling), Station B (RNA extraction), and Station C (qPCR). Station B and C are automated using liquid handling robots, allowing a single operator to run the laboratory and deliver 92 tests every 45 minutes (nearly 2,400 tests in 24 hours).

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OpenCell Lab

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The mobile coronavirus testing lab inside a shipping container was first launched in May 2020 in London, UK by the scientists from OpenCell and King’s College London, in partnership with Opentrons Labworks. It is described as “the first fully functional lab that can be immediately deployed anywhere in the world for COVID testing.”

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Until a vaccine is developed, regular testing on a massive scale is crucial to allow people to live safely. The facility offers “a vital step to increase the number of accredited labs capable of performing COVID testing” according to OpenCell CEO Helene Steiner. The team is working closely with regulators to ensure the system remains capable of “high quality, low cost and meets the rigorous standards”. The system design is open-source and the test relies on reagents that are not proprietary which means it is free from the supply chain restrictions faced by many COVID-19 testing labs.

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