Most of us would run a mile from a droplet of COVID-19 but these dedicated frontline workers are handling 1500 samples of the deadly virus every day.
Most of us would run a mile from a droplet of COVID-19 but these dedicated frontline workers are handling 1500 samples of the deadly virus every day.

What it’s like on the COVID-19 frontline

Exclusive: They are the frontline soldiers of Australia's COVID-19 battle working around the clock to test thousands of throat swabs a day to identify the Aussies infected with the deadly virus.

Staff at Sullivan Nicolaides are working 12-hour days and the laboratory is now open 24/7 as it scrambles to process over 1500 COVID-19 tests per day.

The pathology staff have one of the most important frontline roles in the pandemic - identifying those who have the disease so they can be quarantined.

Dr Michael Harrison and lab assistant Nicole Petley-Labonne at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology in Brisbane. Picture: AAP
Dr Michael Harrison and lab assistant Nicole Petley-Labonne at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology in Brisbane. Picture: AAP

Sullivan Nicolaides CEO Dr Michael Harrison told News Corp his lab workers have been under immense pressure.

"We've never done so many tests before. Even in last year's flu season we only did 1000 tests a day," he said.

The COVID-19 tests are done in batches of 384 and it takes six hours to complete the testing.

While some of the process is carried out by robots it is only semi-automated and the expertise of highly trained workers is required, he said.

 

 

Although many Australians consider the deadly COVID-19 virus particles to be like kryptonite, it's the job of laboratory workers to handle the infectious substance but they are thoroughly protected.

Pathology collection staff are kitted out in full personal protective equipment but robots do the most dangerous job of extracting the virus from the swabs so no one is infected.

Biohazard cupboards are used when there is any human contact with samples.

"I've never heard of anyone getting infected," Dr Harrison said.

The team at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology are working around the clock testing samples for the coronavirus. Picture: AAP
The team at Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology are working around the clock testing samples for the coronavirus. Picture: AAP

The biggest challenge has been managing critical shortages of reagents needed for the tests.

Reagents are compounds which are added to a system to cause chemical reactions.

Due to unprecedented global demand and disruptions to supply chains caused by COVID-19 it's been hard to find components needed to carry out so many tests.

"We almost ran out of supplies on a couple of occasions," Dr Harrison said.

The lab had to innovate and came up with three new extraction processes that used different reagents.

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The COVID-19 tests are done in batches of 384 and it takes six hours to complete testing. Picture: AAP
The COVID-19 tests are done in batches of 384 and it takes six hours to complete testing. Picture: AAP

"We also had to source alternative supplies. Some of this stuff is produced locally but most scientific equipment worldwide is made in Europe, the US," he said.

"Our people were running out of personal protective equipment and swabs for the tests and we had to find a new supplier."

The private sector is now carrying out half of all the COVID-19 testing and around the country, 10,000 tests a day are being performed with only 1.9 per cent returning a positive result.

 

Originally published as What it's like on the COVID-19 frontline

Lab scientist Matt Hadaway monitoring the set up of the Covid-19 testing plate. Picture: AAP
Lab scientist Matt Hadaway monitoring the set up of the Covid-19 testing plate. Picture: AAP

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