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Faster COVID-19 diagnoses: From idea to frontline use in just two months

Faster COVID-19 diagnoses: From idea to frontline use in just two months

NIHR Southampton BRC research underpinned nationwide rollout of Rapid COVID-19 tests in December 2020, cutting in-hospital transmission across the NHS.

In March 2020 COVID-19 cases were rising exponentially. Despite tireless efforts by hospital laboratories, doctors were often waiting 24 hours or more for patients' test results. Each of those passing hours saw increasing infection risk for non-COVID-19 patients held in cohort alongside those with COVID19 , and delay of specific investigations and treatments for non-covid respiratory infections.

Just two months later Dr Tristan Clark delivered a solution to these challenges for his clinical colleagues, by pivoting his world-leading work with Point of Care Testing (POCT) technologies, that give results at the bedside in 70 minute, to target coronavirus. 

Through his longstanding collaboration with manufacturer Qiagen Tristan accessed a new test panel incorporating SARS-CoV-2, whilst BRC and local R&D teams moved at unprecedented speed to open his 500 patient study within two weeks.

The strong relationships between our BRC, clinical teams and hospital leadership saw University Hospital Southampton provide the instant £50,000 funding needed to deliver the trial, and their payback came quickly and in full. The study was complete by the end of April, demonstrating a cut in diagnosis times from 21 hours to 1 hour 40 minutes on average.

That faster diagnosis reduced the time taken to isolate COVID-19 patients on dedicated wards from nearly 30 hours to eight, and gave them access to trial treatments two days earlier on average.  The emerging results were so compelling for reducing frontline staff and non-COVID patient exposure in acute and assessment areas,that the technology was immediately implemented as the hospital's frontline testing method for all admissions.It has remained an essential part of the UHS diagnostic strategy during the second wave, preventing large numbers of hospital acquired cases.

Tristan was subsequently seconded to a Department of Health & Social Care(DHSC) working group tasked with implementing wide scale POCT testing across all acute NHS trusts. By October 2020, that deployment was in gear with POCT in place at seven acute hospital Trusts, and  January 2021 saw all acute trusts having access to rapid testing in time for the most severe pandemic pressures yet.

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