Thursday May 7th 2020

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Under the guidance of an internal taskforce, VIB has leveraged its experience as leading life sciences institute to contribute to upscaling the COVID-19 testing capacity.

Leveraging expertise and flexibility

In less than three weeks, an internal taskforce consisting of several colleagues from the VIB core facilities, has mapped and set up an entire infrastructure for additional COVID-19 testing. Eight Ghent-based VIB teams of volunteers register and deactivate patient samples so that they can be safely tested to determine whether they have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

This is part of a greater effort that was launched after the call of federal minister Philippe De Backer to upscale the testing capacity for COVID-19.

The taskforce promptly responded to this call. With the invaluable help of locally appointed coordinators in the VIB centers, they carefully assessed what infrastructure and expertise was available and how that could be matched with what was needed. Developing the necessary standard operating procedures (SOPs) ensured that this match went smooth.

Stefaan Derveaux, Head of the VIB Nucleomics Core, says: “We believe it is our social responsibility to help to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control: many people are infected with this disease and we need to stop it. It is crucial to get this massive parallel testing up and running, because the demand is high and hospitals and especially elderly homes can’t cope anymore. Conducting large-scale tests is vital to get things under control and save lives.”

An online survey sent out by the taskforce revealed that the expertise of VIB staff and young scientists is matched by their motivation to contribute. Over 600 volunteers have responded and have shown the flexibility to contribute when- and wherever their experience and skills would prove most helpful.

Tony Montoye, Core Facilities Business Developer at VIB, explains the process: “For each of the 8 teams, we selected 3 volunteers with the required skills to perform the actual sample preparation work with the guidance of a coordinator. In order to train all the people involved, we also gathered a dedicated group of trainers.”

Isabelle Carpentier, Head of the IRC Tissue Culture Core, adds: “Overall, over 35 of the volunteers were involved to get the testing up-and-running. The motivation of all these volunteers was the real driving force to establish this is in relatively short time.”

Geert Van Minnebruggen, Head of the VIB Core Facilities: “We are very proud that our (young) scientists, technicians, and even administrative employees are committed to volunteer their expertise from basic research to fight this health crisis. This is yet another example of how VIB can react quickly to a given situation and how flexible our highly-experienced staff can be.”

Many ways to contribute

The ongoing testing in Ghent is part of a joint effort that was initiated by Biogazelle and includes UGent, Ghent University Hospital, Cerba Research (CRI Labs), Anacura and VIB. Cerba Research assembles, distributes and collects the test kits. VIB, as do the other partners, helps with the labor-intensive steps from sample registration to inactivation, while Biogazelle performs the extraction and RT-qPCR detection of the samples. The VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research (IRC) will act as hub for the VIB activities in the FSVM-I research building. The successful roll-out of this scenario at VIB has only been possible thanks to the invaluable help of the colleagues from UGent and the VIB-UGent Center for Inflammation Research.

Saskia Lippens, manager of the VIB Bioimaging Core, explains: “We have the right infrastructure and the right expertise at the right place. The level of expertise of the volunteers is the reason why we can already ramp up to process 1,500 samples per day. Every sample processed by VIB might save a life!”

This, however, is not the only way in which VIB teams are rallying during this crisis.

Several VIB research groups are working tirelessly, some in collaboration with external partners, to develop a nanobody for COVID-19 or to repurpose existing drugs for the mitigation of severe respiratory distress following COVID-19 infection​. VIB’s Discovery Sciences team complements this work with their expertise in finding industry partners to achieve a fast-track development of successful candidate vaccines or medications.

VIB is happy to ‘repurpose’ the experience, expertise, and infrastructure contained within the institute to contribute to the society-wide efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the many initiatives launched recently, VIB extends a helping hand to the hospitals and nursing homes that are the frontline in the fight against COVID-19. Each week we can contribute to getting an answer for 6,000 patients on whether they are infected with SARS-CoV-2. Hopefully, this will help to create the right circumstances for better controlling the spread of the coronavirus.