A TEAM at Basingstoke hospital working on testing of Covid-19 had a “breakthrough” yesterday when they managed to reduce the testing time down to five minutes.

Speaking exclusively to the Gazette, one of the volunteers who is giving up her time every weekend to help with the effort, said the breakthrough could save lives.

Veronica Fowler, who has a background in veterinary health, has been working with the microbiology team at Basingstoke hospital, led by clinical scientist Stephen Kidd.

She said the testing process to confirm a diagnosis of Covid-19 was taking an hour and 20 minutes.

But yesterday, the team managed to get a result in five minutes, and today they hope to improve on that even further.

“We have used this for a long time in veterinary health,” explained Veronica, adding: “It’s also used in customs for meat identity and the plant world or water detection for rare breeds of newt. It’s an established technology but it hasn’t been applied for rapid diagnostics of people. We ran it for the first time yesterday, we did about 40 or 50 samples and we are getting detection anywhere between five and 14 minutes.”

She said the test could save lives, explaining: “They are making hard decisions so to be able to confirm whether someone has it or not will have the potential to save lives because they can start the treatment sooner.

“Anyone’s who’s symptomatic it’s not that they are being completely ignored, you can start some treatment without confirmation that they are infected, but you can’t use unnecessary treatment on someone who might end up having influenza. The clinical signs are shared with other diseases so to get the official yes they have this could potentially save lives.”

It comes the Gazette exclusively revealed Basingstoke hospital was the first hospital in the UK to go live for detecting Covid-19

Since the beginning of February, the microbiology team at Basingstoke North Hampshire Hospitals have started testing and are now able to carry out 75 to 100 tests.

Veronica said Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is leading the way in testing, adding: “The doctors are coming down regularly to get the results of priority patients and they all said it’s a game changer for the NHS. If we complement their tests with this rapid test they can go back to the ward and the patient can receive the treatment they need probably a good half a day earlier.

“I was confident it was going to work but to see the delight on people’s faces, it’s giving the NHS another tool. The situation is horrifying so we need as much help as possible and this is a tool to help.”

The volunteer, who works full time during the week as a virologist for a global animal health company, offered her time to the microbiology team after seeing a plea for help from Mr Kidd.

She said: “I thought better I don’t sit doing nothing at the weekend when I could do something useful. Stephen Kidd set up the lab all by himself he was the first non-PHE lab to go live for detecting Covid-19. He did it single handed for 18 hours a day so I wanted to help him and he’s brought together a team of volunteers, probably about 10 of us to help.”

Basingstoke Gazette: Hampshire Hospitals microbiology team is the first non-PHE lab to successfully go live with testingHampshire Hospitals microbiology team is the first non-PHE lab to successfully go live with testing

Veronica said staff are working flat out to test all the samples coming in, including from other hospitals such as Winchester which don’t have a laboratory, and so rely on volunteers to help out with research.

“A patient has to be swabbed and samples have to be taken to the lab and sometimes they aren’t in the same hospital. Winchester has to ship samples to Basingstoke which adds a couple of days,” she explained.

However, the current testing method could mean priority samples are processed more quickly, and could see kits being given to temporary pop-up hospitals being built, so they don’t have to wait for results to return from laboratories.

She also hopes to see the testing used in the community, adding: “Having rapid diagnostic tests the quicker you get the results the quicker you can isolate. If the delay is three days and someone has been in the community, it might only be in their own household, that’s three days that they are in the community whereas if you can say in two hours they will have the results they won’t be spreading it for three days.”

Veronica described the current situation at Basingstoke hospital as “dire” with lots of patients being admitted, and the peak yet to come in the next few weeks.

She added: “To be completely honest I’m utterly in awe of the laboratory because they have been so quick to respond. I see myself as a tiny spec of dust, I’m insignificant to what’s been achieved but anything I can do to help I will. The key NHS staff don’t have the time because they are working.”

Veronica said despite their heavy workload, doctors were visiting the laboratory to thank the volunteers, and said: “The doctors they are coming in the lab and are almost on their hands and knees thanking us. They are coming in and thanking us it almost makes you cry. We can see the desperation.”

The team is using equipment donated by Optigene in Camberley.

Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Basingstoke hospital, described the work being done by its “amazing microbiology team and the experts who have volunteered to help” as “fantastic”.

It added that the work is still in the early days, adding: “So, we aren’t currently able to turn tests around in five minutes, but we are getting quicker and this work shows what could be possible.”

The trust reassured patients at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Winchester that tests do not take a couple of extra days to run because regular deliveries of samples are taken to the lab at Basingstoke hospital seven days a week.

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