The first step of a coronavirus test is to swab the person’s mouth, nose or throat. The samples are then tested by specially certified molecular biology labs and companies. What is known as a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) is used to test whether the swab contains the coronavirus genotype. A laboratory device that can copy the genetic material in several cycles is used for this purpose. Fluorescent substances are added as markers for the copies, indicating whether the samples contain the gene sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. If so, the sample will test positive, meaning that the person is infected.
Production of test swabs
In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in Switzerland and increase in cases of COVID-19 pneumonia, the demand for test swabs is increasing all across Switzerland. To help with the production of the necessary test swabs and avoid potential supply bottlenecks, ETH Zurich began lending out the necessary laboratory equipment (which is currently not being used due to the restrictions placed on research activity) to a qualified production company in Allschwil (Basel-Landschaft).
The canton of Thurgau had contacted the Genetic Diversity Centre (GDC), which is part of the Department of Environmental Systems Science, and asked whether it could borrow a LightCycler 480 along with the necessary infrastructure for the purposes of producing test swabs. Within just a few hours, both the GDC and the Vice President of Research had pledged their support. “Right now, the most important thing is that we provide support quickly and without any obstacles in this emergency situation so that we can do our part to slow down the coronavirus pandemic,” says ETH Vice President Detlef Günther. “This also includes giving those who urgently need it access to our research infrastructure that we have had to shut down during the coronavirus crisis.”
Normally, the LightCycler is located at the GDC in the ETH Department of Environmental Systems Science. The GDC was established in 2009 as a technology and service platform for genetic and genomic projects for all academic institutions in Switzerland (a genome comprises the entire set of genetic material of a living organism or virus). The GDC’s activities include operating a user laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment that can be used for molecular research.
Cooperation with the canton of Thurgau
The equipment loan was organised very quickly in cooperation with the canton of Thurgau’s task force. On 20 March, it took just a few hours to transport the research equipment from Zurich to Allschwil. “For us, providing this assistance is a matter of course. We drew up a non-bureaucratic lending certificate, and the device will be returned to ETH later. By then, we hope that it will have done its job in helping slow down the coronavirus pandemic,” says Aria Minder, Technical Director of the GDC.
To curb the spread of the coronavirus and reduce direct contact between researchers, ETH Zurich began suspending research activities in all laboratories wherever possible on 20 March. Requests for exemptions are currently being approved for laboratories and infrastructures working on COVID-19 research.