Omicron puts PCR testing back in the news. How can labs meet demand?

With the new COVID-19 variant on the rise across the globe, PCR tests are critical to containing the virus. Here’s how labs can scale to meet new demand.

9th December 2021Mathew Keegan

What is the new Omicron variant?

Cases of the Omicron variant were found in the UK shortly after news broke that it had been identified in South Africa.

The dominant variant of coronavirus historically, is still Delta, which is responsible for around 40,000 new cases every day in the UK. But the Omicron variant stands out because it has lots of different mutations, some that have not been seen before, and many that have. The main concerning feature of this particular strain is that a large number of the mutations are on the spike protein of the virus, which is the target of most vaccines.

At the moment little is known about how the variant acts or how much of a threat it could be. The World Health Organisation says there is no evidence that symptoms of Omicron are different to those of other variants. But on paper it still looks worrying, which is why governments across the globe are acting quickly.


How do PCR tests detect the Omicron variant?

“PCR tests are a critical part of the UK’s strategy to contain the Omicron variant,” explained Mark Frost, director of diagnostic testing provider Circular 1.

In standard tests, Omicron has what’s known as an “S-gene dropout” (which Delta, in most cases, has not), and that gives a clue that it could be the new variant. But not all “S-gene dropouts” will necessarily be Omicron. By looking closely at the genetic material provided in PCR tests, scientists can confirm whether someone is positive with Omicron or the already widely-circulating Delta.

Through this laboratory analysis, several cases of the variant have already been detected. However, it is likely there are many more cases of Omicron already in the UK, but as yet undetected, because it can take a couple of weeks for this process to be completed.

Whether or not the Omicron variant will turn out to be the threat that some fear, the rise of this new mutation highlights the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and the science suggests that PCR tests – whether for fit to fly, population screening or other needs – can be of huge help in identifying new strains like Omicron. The reality of the matter is that the world is still in the early stages of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic so testing is a critical part of continuing life in the ‘new normal’ over the next five or so years.

“By using automation to process PCR tests, we will be able to meet the demand for tests that COVID-19 variants like Omicron put on the UK’s health service”
Mark Frost - Circular 1

So, how can facilities ramp up for testing?

As the last two years have made clear, we should anticipate sudden and dramatic changes in the need for testing. It is therefore necessary that labs and testing facilities are as prepared as possible for the changes that occur. Rapidly scaling to meet COVID-19 testing demand is a huge challenge, however, and it is simply not possible without one key component: Automation.

“By investing in automation technology today, labs can meet the sudden peaks in demand that we expect to see over the coming months and years, as well as helping them future proof, post-pandemic.”
Mark Frost - Circular 1

Automating highly-repetitive tasks, like pipetting and barcode scanning, improves the speed, accuracy and affordability of mass COVID-19 PCR testing. It also allows labs to be more flexible, so they can quickly respond to changes in demand triggered by shifting government policies – without needing to hire more staff.

Learn how to rapidly scale your PCR testing in our whitepaper: Scaling COVID-19 testing with lab automation, or speak to our automation experts about the solutions we have available for automating PCR tests.

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