€4m Covid lab under construction at University Hospital Limerick

ireland
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David Raleigh

A €4million purpose-built Covid-19 laboratory, which will boost testing capacity at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) by 70 per cent, has been given the green light, under the Government’s national pandemic strategy.

The “emergency construction project” is expected to be open and operational by the end of next January, and will increase UHL's existing daily test capacity by approximately 150 tests per day, to around 350 daily tests, a UHL spokesman said.

Construction of the “rapid build modular laboratory commenced in mid-September, and will provide purpose-built physically separated areas for the four stages of (testing) - namely the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique for DNA analysis”.

The standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing of nasal and throat swabs used in processing thousands of Irish samples daily is considered the most sensitive and precise one currently available, according to the hospital.

A “swabbing pod” for staff as well as pre-operative patients was opened on the hospital grounds this week.

The lab and pod “emergency construction projects, form a significant regional component of the Government’s national pandemic strategy”, and are “in line with national guidance specifically requiring an ongoing expansion of hospital laboratory testing”.

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Dr Patrick Stapleton, Consultant Microbiologist at UHL, said the current UHL laboratory already “operates one of the busiest hospital COVID testing services in the country“.

“Staff in the UHL serology and microbiology laboratories, supported by all laboratory disciplines, have built from scratch a COVID testing service that has consistently delivered fast, accurate test results for people attending UL Hospitals and for people in the local community,” Dr Stapleton said.

“The recent welcome developments in buildings and equipment will allow our staff to continue to meet the intense demand by automating some labour-intensive steps in COVID diagnostics, and will permit further expansion in test capacity.”

“The move to a purpose-built laboratory will greatly enhance molecular laboratory diagnostic capacity in the Mid-West during the pandemic and beyond,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tina Fitzgerald, Head of Unscheduled Care at UHL, remarked the swabbing pod would give the hospital greater control in ensuring the safety of patients and staff during the challenging Winter ahead.

“We already have a COVID-19 Screening Team in place, managing the ordering of swabs for pre-operative patients and staff close contacts, as well as the contact tracing and triage process, and the swabbing pod complements this team, and allows us to manage the entire process in-house,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

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“Although COVID will present challenges to the hospital this Winter, having the capacity to manage swabbing for our pre-operative patients and staff will assist in ensuring the safety of patients and staff in the hospital,” she added.

A “centrepiece“ of the new Covid-19 lab will be an Abbott ‘Alinity M’ diagnostic instrument, “a fully automated sample-to-result system, weighing in excess of a ton, which has been purchased by the HSE“, and this will facilitate the increase in testing.

Test capacity

When operational, the new lab will also house another recently received test platform, the Luminex Aries, “which will provide random access rapid test capacity”.

The Luminex Aries will act as a “complement to PCR batch tests that have a fixed number of test runs per day”, allowing “testing to be conducted on a needs basis, performing up to 14 tests per run with results available within two hours“.

This instrument is currently undergoing validation tests on site in UHL.

The spokesman explained that “rapid testing provides a significant degree of flexibility for COVID testing at UHL, where the highest priority is patients admitted through the Emergency Department with suspected COVID”.

“Earlier availability of test results facilitates swifter decisions on isolation, and earlier activation of treatment options for confirmed COVID-19 patients,” they said.

The Luminex, is “an alternative supply chain to the existing UHL rapid test system, GeneXpert, whose manufacturer had reoriented some European supplies of test kits to regions of the globe where the pandemic was relatively uncontrolled”, they added.

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