Preparation and production of COVID-19 vaccines broke records, and now with the new Omicron variant, COVID-19 testing needs to speed up, too. Automation is making it happen.
Automated PCR testing
Japanese chemical company Fujifilm had an automated system for tuberculosis testing. They have been able to adapt it to test for COVID-19.
Testing is normally a 5-step process:
- Collect sample
- Extract and purify RNA from sample
- Generate DNA from RNA template
- Amplify DNA, PCR process, and observe reaction
- Judge results
With the Fujifilm process, steps 2 and 4 are automated. Steps 2 through 5 take about 75 minutes with this process, compared with 4 to 6 hours to perform all the steps manually.
Taiwanese company TCI Gene can do the job in about 60 minutes using ABB robots. The robots extract RNA and generate DNA, add reagents, and place the specimens in a centrifuge. Another robot retrieves the specimens and sets them on a conveyor belt.
Like Fujifilm, TCI Gene based their system on existing methods. Their process is based on a genetic testing system which was already in use.
With their two-robot approach, they can perform 1,800 tests in a 24-hour day with 99.999% accuracy.
Benefits of automation
There are other automated systems, as well as rapid tests that check for antigens rather than uswing RNA. All the automated systems have the advantage of providing highly accurate results faster and with less of a human burden.
Human lab technicians are working overtime to keep up with the rising demand for tests. The Omicron variant is bringing a surge in cases, travelers need tests for informed decisions — or for permission to leave the airport in some destinations — and holiday visits to family members are causing concern.
The result is a heavier than normal workload for lab technicians. As TCI Gene points out, human workers who have to work longer hours are more likely to become fatigued and make errors. This is not a problem robots have.
Medical labs are also facing the same labor shortages that manufacturers are facing.
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