How automating labs can improve PCR testing

With the reliance on PCR testing set to continue, automation offers an unrivalled opportunity to upscale PCR testing capacity, accuracy and turnaround times.

Around the world, PCR testing has become essential to navigating pandemic life, as the gold standard for accurately detecting a SARS-CoV-2 infection swiftly and supporting the identification of new variants.

Demand has increased substantially for PCR testing. In the UK alone, PCR testing capacity increased from a few thousand daily tests, at the beginning of the pandemic, to up to 800,000 today.

UK PCR testing increased from a few thousand daily tests before the pandemic, to 800,000 today

Pressure on labs to meet testing demand, and increase capacity, has contributed to growing lab pressures. Recent research from Automata has highlighted the intense strain on lab staff during the pandemic. Pathology and diagnostic lab staff cited concerns over staff shortages, exhaustion, meeting demands and time pressures as issues being experienced across the sector, and in their labs. Very few lab managers feel that the situation is getting any better, with no respondent answering that the stress caused by time pressure was improving. In fact, 80% of respondents think that general issues of morale and exhaustion are actively getting worse.

This comes at a time when the diagnostic and pathology workforce are working under pressure to meet existing testing demands for core care and clear pandemic backlogs. Indeed, The Royal College of Pathologists has warned that stretched resources are impacting labs ability to clear the backlog and deliver care and treatment.

Meanwhile, the rollout of PCR testing for coronavirus has been heavily scrutinised in the UK, with concerns around system testing capacity, slow turnaround times and workforce shortages. Fast and accurate mass community population testing, to monitor the spread of COVID-19, will continue to be key in the future, to support economic recovery and the transition to a post-pandemic world.

But automating the manual elements of the PCR testing process can increase capacity and efficiency and relieve beleaguered staff to be redeployed to address other shortages.

What benefits can automated PCR testing offer?

As the world continues testing extensively and at pace, there is a huge opportunity for more innovative approaches to testing to free up workforces, speed up turnaround times and ensure the accuracy of every PCR test administered.

1. The use of automated machines in microbiology labs for PCR tests allows labs to scale and significantly increase output to meet demands. For instance, an automated PCR thermocycler can play an essential part in scaling up the number of tests that can be completed on a given day

2. Relieving human lab operators from undertaking manual assays, alleviates a workforce under strain, freeing them up to tackle other pressures

3. Using PCR automated robots  to automate the nucleic acid testing workflow allows for repetitive processes to be conducted over extended time periods previously out of reach for manual operators

4. This also reduces the number of human touch points which minimises human error, improving the accuracy of results while increasing the reproducibility and reliability of sample results

5. Removing human touch points helps improve lab safety, minimising lab staff’s potential exposure to the pathogens they’re testing. The use of coated cartridges in automated PCR testing minimises the risk of infection for lab staff who are dealing with potential positive-COVID samples

 6. PCR automated robots can process more tests per hour than manual alternatives, meaning fewer scientists are required per test reducing labour costs and increasing capacity

7. Fully automated molecular diagnostics systems are already being used by NHS pathology labs to rapidly increase turnaround times for patients

What do lab managers think of automation?

Lab managers have confidence in automation as a viable and credible solution, to both relieve current pressures, and improve labs’ capacity, speed, safety and patient outcomes. As Automata Labs’ research found,  97% of lab managers associate automation with time savings – be that single-station, full-workflow, or both forms.

97% of lab managers associate automation with time savings

The future of automation in PCR testing

Many labs have already begun the journey towards automating elements of the testing process to operate more effectively and quickly. When the pandemic struck, labs that already had robust automation solutions were better positioned to respond to the increased demand on their capacity. Indeed, NHS Test and Trace is already utilising automation to operate faster with increased capacity

Automata Labs’ automated PCR-testing solution combines six individual Modular Pods into one complete workflow to expedite PCR testing, combining tried-and-tested lab equipment with robotic automation technology.

While COVID-19 still presents an immediate challenge to health systems, automation in PCR testing will continue to be a vital tool to improve efficiencies across molecular diagnostics long into the future. Learn how to increase the scale and productivity of your lab using automation.

Nucleic acid testing for diagnostics
For labs that focus on diagnostics, discover specific use cases to show how you can automate and scale your testing capabilities.
View this solution
Unlock your people
21 February 2023
What is lab 4.0?
16 November 2022