Sonic Healthcare UK has been at the forefront of COVID-19 testing for the UK since the disease first emerged. The team has developed new testing methods, worked closely with hospitals, helped others open their own labs, and by January 2021 had the capacity to process more than 20,000 PCR tests a day.

When the outbreak of COVID-19 occurred in Wuhan City, China, in December 2019, Sonic Healthcare UK was already running a respiratory panel that included seasonal coronavirus and a separate assay for MERS CoV. As  soon as the sequence of the virus SARS CoV-2 was published, the team designed an assay to detect it by PCR. 

The early months of the pandemic also saw global constraints on the reagents needed for testing, so the team  developed a new, simpler assay. This was shared with NHS England laboratories and with colleagues within our global Sonic network.

At the same time, Sonic Healthcare UK helped The Francis Crick Institute convert their research facility into a COVID-PCR testing laboratory. And, subsequently, another COVID-19 PCR lab was set up at University College London for frontline NHS staff testing; this lab went live in August 2020.

Sonic Healthcare UK has worked closely with London hospitals, supporting the Royal Free Hospital Group’s High Consequence Infectious Diseases Unit, where the initial index patients with COVID-19 in the UK were treated at the outset and other hospitals that were worst affected by the peak of COVID-19. Sonic Healthcare UK also supported the London Nightingale Hospital with clinical leadership and pathology transport and contributed to research projects investigating vaccine production, use of convalescent plasma and analysis of prevalence in care homes throughout England.

In September, TDL provided the COVID-19 testing for the ‘cataract drive’ at Moorfields Eye Hospital. The project aimed to carry out 1000 cataract operations in a week – four times the cataract procedures that they usually perform.

By the end of September 2020, the Halo laboratory was processing more than 10,000 samples a day. This capacity grew even further with the opening, in December 2020,  of a winter COVID surge laboratory at the Halo – a major project where we are providing all the expertise and intensive management input for this national Government project. This new COVID lab on level 9 of the Halo allows a further 10,000 people to be tested a day in addition to our current capacity. 

More recently, Sonic Healthcare UK has been supporting the identification of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. Such variants arise through mutation of the virus, and can affect vaccine efficiency and pathogenicity and virulence, which may then require changes in clinical and public health decisions.

The current protocol is that SARS-CoV-2 variants, if considered to have concerning epidemiological, immunological or pathogenic properties, are raised for formal investigation. At this point they are designated Variant Under Investigation (VUI) with a year, month, and number. Following risk assessment with the relevant expert committee, they may be designated Variant of Concern (VOC).

Sonic Healthcare UK has been chosen to represent the NHS England laboratories in the London 2 Region to test all positive COVID samples within 24 hours to determine the presence of key variants of concern. This enables Track and Trace to home in quickly on people who may be positive for such variants. We are also performing this testing in our surge laboratory on Level 9 of the Halo building.