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‘Super labs’ start work to increase Covid-19 testing capacity
A platform of coronavirus “super labs” has been launched today, with the aim of processing around 50,000 extra Covid-19 tests each day.
In total, eight university labs will form the national test platform. The first three began operations today at the university hospitals of Ghent, Leuven and Mons. The remaining five should be up and running within two weeks. Their purpose is to reduce the pressure on existing labs and make it possible to test asymptomatic people. Currently, limited lab capacity means that only those with coronavirus symptoms can be tested for infection.
An average of just over 66,000 tests are processed in Belgium each day, at clinical and industrial labs. The new labs will replace the industrial labs and will be able to perform more tests with a shorter waiting time for results thanks to greater automation. Once all the necessary materials and products have been delivered, capacity will be increased to almost 7,000 tests per day per centre.
The labs at Ghent and Leuven have each recruited 40 new employees to be able to carry out the eventual 7,000 tests each day, and are committed to reporting results within 24 hours. “Internationally, everyone is looking for the necessary instruments, plastics and reagents. So it remains a battle,” says Bruno Verhasselt, head of UZ Gent’s medical microbiology department. “But the federal government has purchased a large volume for all laboratories and I am very hopeful that we will not run out of reagents.”
Belgium’s testing strategy was recently adapted due to lack of processing capacity, meaning that only people showing symptoms were able to be tested. People returning from travel in red zones or those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive currently have to quarantine rather than being tested. The aim is that by 15 November, the pressure will have eased and asymptomatic people will again be able to book a test.
“I am really hopeful that it will succeed,” says Verhasselt. “I don’t think anyone was happy that the testing strategy was changed. That was a pragmatic decision because the labs were inundated and the federal platform wasn’t ready yet. But that was a temporary measure and we’re going back to the most rational approach, that is to screen asymptomatic people who have had a high-risk contact.”
The federal government is providing equipment and materials. The five remaining super labs will be in Antwerp, Brussels, Liège, Louvain-La-Neuve and Namur.
Photo courtesy UZ Leuven