ETH makes laboratory equipment available for coronavirus tests

Coronavirus testing is an essential part of identifying infected people and curbing the spread of the pandemic. To speed up the testing process, the Department of Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich has made its laboratory equipment available to the canton of Thurgau.

The first step of a coronavirus test is to swab the person’s mouth, nose or throat. The samples are then tested by specially certified molecular biology labs and companies. What is known as a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) is used to test whether the swab contains the coronavirus genotype. A laboratory device that can copy the genetic material in several cycles is used for this purpose. Fluorescent substances are added as markers for the copies, indicating whether the samples contain the gene sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. If so, the sample will test positive, meaning that the person is infected.

Production of test swabs

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak in Switzerland and increase in cases of COVID-19 pneumonia, the demand for test swabs is increasing all across Switzerland. To help with the production of the necessary test swabs and avoid potential supply bottlenecks, ETH Zurich began lending out the necessary laboratory equipment (which is currently not being used due to the restrictions placed on research activity) to a qualified production company in Allschwil (Thurgau).

The canton of Thurgau had contacted the Genetic Diversity Centre ( GDC ), which is part of the Department of Environmental Systems Science, and asked whether it could borrow a LightCycler 480 along with the necessary infrastructure for the purposes of producing test swabs. Within just a few hours, both the GDC and the Vice President of Research had pledged their support. "Right now, the most important thing is that we provide support quickly and without any obstacles in this emergency situation so that we can do our part to slow down the coronavirus pandemic," says ETH Vice President Detlef GŁnther. "This also includes giving those who urgently need it access to our research infrastructure that we have had to shut down during the coronavirus crisis."

Normally, the LightCycler is located at the GDC in the ETH Department of Environmental Systems Science. The GDC was established in 2009 as a technology and service platform for genetic and genomic projects for all academic institutions in Switzerland (a genome comprises the entire set of genetic material of a living organism or virus). The GDC’s activities include operating a user laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment that can be used for molecular research.

Cooperation with the canton of Thurgau

The equipment loan was organised very quickly in cooperation with the canton of Thurgau’s task force. On 20 March, it took just a few hours to transport the research equipment from Zurich to Allschwil. "For us, providing this assistance is a matter of course. We drew up a non-bureaucratic lending certificate, and the device will be returned to ETH later. By then, we hope that it will have done its job in helping slow down the coronavirus pandemic," says Aria Minder, Technical Director of the GDC.

To curb the spread of the coronavirus and reduce direct contact between researchers, ETH Zurich began suspending research activities in all laboratories wherever possible on 20 March. Requests for exemptions are currently being approved for laboratories and infrastructures working on COVID-19 research.

Support platform for hospitals

Meanwhile, the ETH Domain’s COVID-19 task force has organised the launch of the "Academic Resources for COVID-19" platform to offer researchers an effective way to make their equipment, active agents, reagents, knowledge and staff available to meet the increasing needs of hospitals and diagnostic laboratories. The platform can be accessed here: taskforce.sp.ethz.ch.

Professors, lab directors and researchers who are able to offer their support to hospitals and laboratories can visit the platform to see a current list of requests submitted by health institutions. A simple online form lets potential partners offer their resources. The Spiez Laboratory, the Swiss institute tasked with protection against atomic, biological and chemical hazards, matches up the offers with the requests received from hospitals and laboratories.

Once the Spiez Laboratory has set up the assignment, the researchers and healthcare partners contact each other directly. The hospitals and laboratories submit their request for support to the military healthcare service and the Spiez Laboratory - and are then directed to the platform (see illustration).

Florian Meyer