It’s not often that a fully functional and accredited laboratory gets set up within a week – but with Manawatū facing severe COVID-19 testing delays, Dr Rebecca Lucas-Roxburgh and her team made it happen.
A Lecturer in
Applied Science at UCOL, Lucas-Roxburgh was previously a scientist for MedLab Central, which is how she got involved with this project.
“At the earlier stages of the pandemic, all samples from our region were going to Canterbury laboratory – but once we reached Level 4 and flights were cancelled, there were massive issues in getting samples down,” says Lucas-Roxburgh.
“MedLab called me, and asked if we were to set up testing here, hypothetically, how would we go about doing it? I set out some ideas, and then all of a sudden there’s a Zoom meeting happening and it’s not hypothetical anymore!”
Working alongside MedLab, Massey University and Ag Research staff, the group put in some big hours and had a fully accredited lab set up and running a week later. They now handle tests from MidCentral, Whanganui and Hauora Tairawhiti DHBs, and on their biggest day so far have performed 691 tests.
Lucas-Roxburgh says that the public might think these tests are a simple matter of putting things into an analyser – but that’s not the case. “This kind of testing is actually very hands on, it’s a lot of manual work and time getting put in. The work is split into two areas, the first where we deal with the samples which are infectious. We do this in a PC3 lab with lots of protective equipment. Once we’ve inactivated the virus we can then work in a normal lab, with just a lab coat and gloves.”
“Throughout the testing UCOL has been absolutely amazing – they gave me leave to do this, and the other members of my department covered my classes so that students were taken care of. They even lent us the scrubs we needed for the lab. It’s been fantastic, and I’m back to teaching as well as COVID-19 testing this week.”
Working alongside Lucas-Roxburgh are a team of seven medical laboratory technicians and scientists – and she was especially thrilled to meet Sahiba Kaur, who is a
UCOL National Diploma in Science graduate. Kaur has been working for MedLab since she graduated in 2017.
“It was a pretty interesting start for this project,” says Kaur. “An email came around the office, talking about how they were thinking about setting up a new lab, and asked for volunteers who had experience with pipette work. I was well practiced with that from my UCOL study, so I put my name forward to help. I didn’t hear anything for a few days, then suddenly there was a message on Sunday to start on Monday!
“I was really nervous to start, but I feel really proud to be a part of this team. We’ve been working pretty much every day to get the testing done, dividing it into day and night shifts. I think I’m the only technician who has a diploma – everyone else has degrees, but the supervisors have been really happy with my practical skills, and that’s what they really need.”
“I hope this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it’s never needed again – but it’s been amazing to learn, and to give back.”
Images: Dr Rebecca Lucas-Roxburgh in COVID-19 Testing Lab and Sahiba Kaur at MedLab Central Micro Lab.