Robotic platform boost for Covid-19 tests

High-throughput, robotic technology normally used to test for infections in vulnerable people has been quickly repurposed for Covid-19 tests.

Covid-19 tests
Swab testing (Image: UK DRI)

Developed in nine days by Professor Paul Freemont and colleagues from the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), the breakthrough is expected to increase the UK’s capacity to test for Covid-19.


Currently, around 10,000 tests for coronavirus are being done each day in the UK, with the government aiming to increase this to 100,000 per day by the end of April, 2020.

Each robotic module can process almost 1,000 coronavirus samples in a 12-hour period using the same Covid-19 tests being used by the NHS, but processing more samples simultaneously with a range of different reagents. The platform is being accredited and approved, and last week began testing samples at two NHS hospitals in London, which have one robotic module each.

Having completed validation on 251 real-life samples in blind testing, the platform began testing patient samples on April 6, 2020 and is now ready to be rolled out on a larger scale, for which the UK DRI is now looking for support.

Current tests take samples from patients and amplify tiny amounts of virus RNA if they are present, a process called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Following a UK government call for a higher volume of tests, Professor Freemont and the London Biofoundry facility, which he co-directs, began repurposing their robotic RNA extraction equipment to significantly scale up this process.

Unlike most testing equipment worldwide, the new platform is not reliant on specific reagent suppliers. This means it is more resilient, as different test kits can be used on the same platform.

In a statement Professor Paul Freemont, Group Leader at the UK DRI’s Care Research and Technology Centre at Imperial College London and University of Surrey, said: “Getting a platform like this up and running isn’t straightforward – there are a lot of things to account for that could be the difference between success and failure, like the reliability of supply chains for sample kits, reagents and other essential equipment. We have been diversifying and stress-testing a range of supply lines to make sure our platform can be used to its fullest capacity.

“Importantly, working with Myra McClure’s Molecular Diagnostic Unit on the St. Mary’s Campus of Imperial College, and Paul Randell from North West London Pathology, we were able to validate the whole process from receipt of clinical samples in their containment facility to the final virus ‘detected’ or ‘not detected’ result.

 “The great thing about a modular platform is that it can be easily scaled up and put to use in more sites. It takes little space and needs only one trained person to operate it, meaning social distancing isn’t an issue.”