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Decoding diagnostics: building a flexible and resilient diagnostics sector in the COVID-era

As we support the battle against COVID-19 and support wider population screening and testing for diseases like cervical cancer and STIs, we need to build a sector fit for the future, says Holigic | Credit: Hologic

Adrian Smith, General Manager | Hologic

5 min read Partner content

Beyond the immediate challenge of COVID-19, the UK must now consider what other steps should be taken to ensure it has a resilient and flexible diagnostics sector that can respond to future pandemics or other diseases with speed and efficiency.

In the months ahead, our health system will face a delicate balancing act: continuing the fight against COVID-19, while delivering critical population health screening programmes and diagnostic services, to help identify and treat other diseases. 

To meet these challenges, the NHS will rely on the delivery of three things: scale of COVID-19 testing; capacity in our network of laboratories to support all necessary testing; and a more flexible and resilient diagnostics sector able to react to surges in demand.

As one of the largest molecular diagnostic companies in the world, with 30 years of experience in population screening and testing, Hologic is proud to play its part in meeting these goals, alongside the NHS and the laboratories who continue to work so hard.

Driving scale and capacity in testing for COVID-19

The ongoing challenge facing all health services is scaling testing for COVID-19 to levels that will allow us to control and suppress the disease as we move towards the winter flu season, when the strain of typical seasonal pressures emerges. To drive the volume of testing at the scale and frequency needed, innovative approaches are required to maximise diagnostics capacity.  

At the beginning of the pandemic, we recognised that Hologic could play an important role in helping the UK to meet this challenge, by leveraging our existing, nationwide network of Panther® systems. These robotic platforms are fully automated, high-throughput molecular diagnostic testing machines, which process Hologic’s Aptima® SARS-CoV-2 assay, a highly accurate COVID-19 test that can be manufactured at high-volume in the UK. 

More than 100 Panther systems are already installed in over 50 labs across the UK and widely used for existing national screening programmes, such as cervical cancer, and sexually transmitted infections. 

This network of Panthers is capable of processing 100,000 tests a day. 

This ensures that high volumes of Coronavirus test results are delivered quickly and accurately, allowing people to either get back to work or self-isolate. This continues to be a crucial element of mitigating the health, economic and social harm caused by COVID-19.

Utilising testing capacity, while maintaining other health screening

But overcoming the challenges we face in the coming months will not just be about COVID-19 testing.

Supporting the work of broader diagnostic services continues to be of paramount importance, particularly cancer screening services where Hologic delivers significant testing capacity to vital national cervical and breast cancer screening programmes.  

This involves both safely resuming testing, and tackling the backlogs, to mitigate the impact of cancers and other diseases not being identified early enough.

Central to overcoming this will be having the flexibility within labs to process other disease tests in parallel with testing for COVID-19.

Hologic’s Panther system has the capacity to process tests for different diseases at the same time, and offers scientists the ability to balance their workload, including key services such as HIV viral load testing, cervical cancer screening, STI screening and respiratory testing.

This enables labs to maximise their capacity and quickly scale up and down testing for different diseases as required. 

Building a more resilient and flexible diagnostics sector 

Aside from ensuring that there is enough capacity to battle COVID-19 in the short term, we also need to strengthen our diagnostic capabilities in the longer term, with a robust infrastructure and a supply chain insulated as much as possible from the more precarious aspects of global supply chains.  

Sustaining a secure supply chain has been one of the most challenging aspects of building high volume COVID-19 testing provision, with unprecedented global demand for limited resources.

Hologic has undertaken an ambitious expansion programme investing over £6 million to base production of our Aptima SARS-CoV-2 assay in Manchester, with additional capacity to supply countries across Europe and other markets outside of the UK. This has created 44 additional high-skilled jobs in the city. 

Having both production and distribution based in the UK, creates a more robust, resilient supply chain for the assay, better insulated from global challenges. Meanwhile, we continue to work with partners to strengthen the supply of ancillary parts of the testing process, beyond our immediate supply chain.     

Beyond the immediate challenge of COVID-19, the UK must now consider what other steps should be taken to ensure it has a resilient and flexible diagnostics sector that can respond to future pandemics or other diseases with speed and efficiency. 

Most significantly, we must now consider how to minimise the negative consequences of how the NHS contracts for medical technology including diagnostics.  

We need to avoid the unintended consequences of stifling innovation, and restricting the ability of new companies and technologies from entering the UK market - this tends to disproportionately affect smaller UK companies.

More broadly, COVID-19 has created the environment in which the use of innovative approaches to diagnostics have been accelerated. Techniques such as digital cytology that can be interpreted outside of a clinical setting, or remote imaging for breast cancer that can make it more convenient for patients to take up offers of screening, now need to be adopted more widely.    

Looking ahead 

We are certainly not in the clear when it comes to COVID-19, nor do we know what other healthcare challenges may be on the horizon, particularly as we approach the flu season.

We must build a diagnostics sector that can respond to the obstacles thrown its way, harnessing innovations that already exist, and creating an environment in which innovative diagnostic companies can provide new ways of solving old problems. 

Capacity, flexibility and resilience – these are key to unlocking the true value and potential of the sector, and facilitating population screening with greater efficiency.  

Hologic stands ready to work with health officials, clinicians and laboratories in the months and years ahead to ensure the best possible patient outcomes.

Not just in the short term, as we support the battle against COVID-19 and support wider population screening and testing for diseases like cervical cancer and STIs, but in the long term as we build a sector fit for the future.

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