June 2021News

New automated lab technology produces faster results for COVID-19 tests

The pace of molecular testing for the presence of COVID-19 has greatly accelerated in CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, following the recent installation of equipment that automates the process to a much greater degree.

According to Dr. Jerry Zaharatos, Chief of the Division of Medical Microbiology at the JGH, hospitalized patients can now routinely get their results in six to eight hours, while outpatients and members of the public need to wait only 12 to 24 hours.

Dipika Patel, a Medical Technologist at the JGH, prepares samples for automated analysis by the cobas 8800 to determine whether they are COVID-19-positive.

Dipika Patel, a Medical Technologist at the JGH, prepares samples for automated analysis by the cobas 8800 to determine whether they are COVID-19-positive.

“Previously, it was not uncommon for people outside the hospital to experience delays of 24 to 48 hours,” says Dr. Zaharatos, who holds a key position in Optilab, a regional cluster of labs, to which the JGH belongs. “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again, given the capacity of this instrument and our strengthened supply chain.”

The machine in question is the cobas 8800, a substantial piece of digital equipment that’s nearly three metres (10 feet) long, over two metres (6½ feet) high and 1¼ metres (just over four feet) deep.

After a nasal swab has been prepared for analysis and placed on a conveyor, the cobas extracts and purifies the genetic material, and then analyzes it to determine whether the COVID-19 virus is present.

Results are obtained with much less manual labour by laboratory technologists than was the case until late April, when the cobas 8800 went into operation at the JGH. This makes the CIUSSS one of only a handful of centres in Quebec to use such sophisticated equipment.

Coming in the fall is another component that will raise the level of automation another notch: Swabs in special plastic tubes will be popped right into the new component, which will uncap the tubes and perform the remaining steps automatically before loading the samples into the cobas 8800.

The automated cobas 8800 uses molecular diagnostics to rapidly analyze samples from patients.

The automated cobas 8800 uses molecular diagnostics to rapidly analyze samples from patients.

Dr. Zaharatos notes that while testing for COVID-19 remains the immediate priority, the new instrument will continue to play a major role after the pandemic subsides. The cobas 8800 will eventually replace many manually operated machines that now test for other infectious illnesses, such as seasonal influenza, viral pneumonia, drug-resistant bacteria and sexually transmitted diseases.

By relieving laboratory technologists of the need to perform so many manual activities, the cobas 8800 also helps protect them from developing repetitive motion injuries. And since the instrument is enclosed, testing also becomes safer. “This is really going to reduce stress for our technologists,” Dr. Zaharatos says.

Since these members of staff are freed up to perform other types of lab work, they can make better use of their skills at a time when all of Quebec is experiencing a shortage of lab technologists.

“We’re able to keep the more experienced people a little more rested, while giving them the time to teach the younger professionals who are coming up through the ranks,” Dr. Zaharatos explains.

“We now have this amazing buffer. If there’s a sudden surge of cases, or if we need to test a lot more healthcare workers because of an outbreak at a particular site, we’ll be able to adapt easily.

“This adds to our armamentarium of new molecular instruments for diagnosing infectious diseases and the added flexibility has been and will continue to be a major benefit.”

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