In the UK small mobile testing facilities could become a useful tool in the pandemic response and are currently being trialled. The island of Jersey has sparked an excellent idea in building a laboratory inside of a shipping container. The container can process 2000 reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests every 24 hours. The container is currently based at a car park just behind Jersey’s only airport – which began in July.

Jersey is based just 23km (14 miles) off the French coast and is a British crown dependency and self growing member of the Channel Islands. Before the idea of testing in containers, Covid-19 tests had been processed using both local facilities on the Island and laboratories based in the UK. As of current the capacity in the containers are limited to 2000 with plans for more machines which will help to expand this number by mid September.

Testing those travelling

Those travelling into Jersey will be given the option to be swabbed for Covid-19 or else to self isolate for two weeks, unless those travelling have come from regions the local government have deemed are at greater risk of exposure to Covid-19. The majority of swabs are to be processed at the shipping container lab. Consultant Microbiologist and deputy medical officer of health for the Jersey government Ivan Muscat stated,

“the facility could mean that negative test results are texted to travellers in as little as four hours after a sample is provided. It may take slightly longer to communicate positive results, as these will be reported to individuals directly by contact tracers.”

“It seemed like the most efficient and rapid way of setting up a completely new system. It was, if you like, an off the shelf complete laboratory, in contradistinction to building a laboratory yourself.”

Compact and transportable

Currently there are several container testing laboratories being built, the design for OpenCell’s compact and transportable Covid-19 testing labs was developed in partnership with King’s College London and open source laboratory equipment from Opentrons. The shipping containers are 40ft each and can be easily transported by road, rail, air and sea. There will be six members of staff working in shifts. Each container will be equipped with robotic machines developed to automatically handle samples and fluids. Each laboratory is designed to meet biosafety level two or higher.

The idea is proving popular as there are now manufacturing plans in place for shipping container laboratories made to order for other clients with delivery to Pakistan and another for an undisclosed location in the UK. The aim is to boost overall testing capacity and provide results quickly to people on site. In the wider UK testing capacity within the NHS has grown significantly since the beginning of the pandemic, which means the use of small on site testing facilities such as the container labs will prove useful. If successful, it could pave the way forward for similar projects to bring testing facilities much closer to the point of care in some special cases.

Article by – Chris Baraniuk, journalist