How OpenCell Is Scaling Up COVID-19 Testing

OpenCell is rapidly scaling high throughput testing facilities across the UK to process up to 10,000 COVID-19 tests per day.

An OpenCell researcher processing COVID-19 tests with an Opentrons OT-2.
An OpenCell researcher processing COVID-19 tests with an Opentrons OT-2. CREDIT: OpenCell

OpenCell provides early stage biotech startups in London with affordable lab space -- but right now, they’re targeting COVID-19.

Ever since the novel coronavirus COVID-19 was detected in the UK, OpenCell shifted gears. They are now rapidly scaling high throughput nucleic acid testing facilities in shipping containers that can be deployed anywhere. The goal? Ramp up testing capabilities from 500 tests per day to more than 10,000.

“Testing saves lives,” writes Thomas Meany, Co-Founder of OpenCell on their blog. “This is a once in a century pandemic and we need action.”

Testing is the best course of action to take because it is the quickest way to correctly identify individuals infected with COVID-19 and quarantine them for treatment without allowing the contagion to spread. The UK is expected to see a rapid, exponential daily increase of infected people over the next few weeks, and given the high volume and variety of tests available right now, the National Health Service is under a lot of strain to process everything in a timely manner. If the UK permits emergency use authorisation, more labs would be able to process these tests and help safe patients.

And that’s why OpenCell turned to the Opentrons platform.

“By using the Opentrons we have begun to replicate their procedure for multiplexing the assay and then increasing an individual's capacity to do testing,” Meany writes. Opentrons robots do not have regulatory approval to perform diagnostic testing, but are able to perform population surveillance testing due to Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) issued by the FDA. To that end, the Opentrons procedure utilizes a 3-step process for safely and automatically processing COVID-19 test samples: sample plating, RNA extraction, and qPCR setup. After that, the samples are processed in a qPCR machine and the lab collects the results.

The scalability of the Opentrons COVID-19 Testing System
The scalability of the Opentrons COVID-19 Testing System. CREDIT: Opentrons 

OpenCell has pooled resources for this testing procedure quickly over the last week, including the automation hardware and software, extraction kits, and qPCR kits. They will be running tests over the weekend and placing their findings online over the weekend.

OpenCell will also make the protocols for their extraction assay immediately available for download on their site -- as well as the design for their shipping container lab.

But they’re hoping to do even more. And they need help.

“If you have support you can offer, please contact us covid19@opencell.bio,” Meany writes. “Our biggest needs are qPCR machines, liquid handlers and reagents/kits for RNA extractions and qPCR.”

He also urges everyone to “Demand emergency use authorisation be enacted across Europe, demand fast tracked procurement for health services, demand funding for this. Demand action. Don’t accept the normal procedures and slow politicised discussions. Prioritise saving lives.”

If you would like to learn more about OpenCell’s COVID-19 testing project, watch the video below or read their blog.

If you would like to implement the Opentrons system in your own lab, please contact covid-19@opentrons.com.