Tony Fearns normally works on one of the deadliest bacteria on the planet, tuberculosis (TB). But now his lab has stepped to be part of the COVID-19 testing process at the Crick, helping train other people to work with potentially dangerous samples. Using the same processes he uses for TB research, Tony is now treating the samples that arrive from the NHS.
Can you tell us a bit more about your usual role at the Crick?
As a senior laboratory research scientist in the Gutierrez lab, I have a number of responsibilities. My favourites have to be training new lab members to work safely with Tuberculosis bacterium and providing electron microscopy expertise for the lab, which involves taking high resolution images of biological specimens . I think I’m the only person in the Crick with this combined skill set! Our research focuses on the host-pathogen interactions in Tuberculosis and I take great pleasure in telling people that I work with one of the deadliest bacteria on the planet!
What is your lab doing as part of the COVID-19 testing?
I work with a fantastic team of scientists in the lab, and many of them have volunteered to help with the COVID-19 testing. Because we’re all already trained to work with dangerous bacteria, it’s meant we can help to train other volunteers in the processes they need to use when handling COVID-19.
I think the Crick has really come together to show what is possible when you have a “can-do attitude”.
How does your part of the process work?
Samples that arrive from the NHS must first be inactivated before they can be safely handled, which means they can’t infect anyone else. The process itself is quite simple; once the samples arrive, they are logged on the system then hurried to the facility where we’re waiting to receive them. We then check the barcodes against the samples to make sure they match, then transfer the swabs into 5M Gu buffer to inactivate any virus present. The main challenges lie in sticking to the strict procedures we have, as well as constantly cross-referencing the tubes to make sure that samples are properly assigned to their correct barcodes and none are lost.
How did you become involved in this?
From early on, we were asked if we’d be interested in volunteering to help train scientists who don’t normally work in the same facilities as we do. It’s one of the main challenges facing labs wanting to help, the fact you have to work in high containment facilities to first inactivate the virus so it can be processed safely. But the response from across the Crick has been great and many students, postdocs, LRSs and group leaders have come forward from a whole range of backgrounds.
It’s been great to see so many people volunteering their time and skills to help others
How are you and your team working at the moment?
Members of our health and safety team have done a fantastic job in organising the rotas and getting everyone trained. We work in teams of three, divided into morning and afternoon shifts (we do get a break during our shift). Everyone is told to arrive around an hour before samples arrive. Once the samples are on site, we have a bit of time to prepare the tubes and our work areas whilst the sample reception team catalogues them.
Outside of COVID-19 testing, the lab has tried to keep things as normal as possible. We still have the usual timings for our one to one meetings, journal club and lab meeting on Thursdays (now all virtually, of course). We’ve also introduced a happy hour on Fridays to catch up informally.
Personally, how are you finding it?
I remain optimistic about the whole situation. It’s been great to see so many people volunteering their time and skills to help others, and I think the Crick has really come together to show what is possible when you have a “can-do attitude”. On a personal note, it’s also reminded me why research on tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases, is so important.