“The actual moment I remember quite vividly, I remember the room I was in,” says Roman Terrill, Senior VP of Products and Services at IDT. “The gravity, what the implication was – the obligations on IDT – wasn’t overwhelming, it was more inspiring.”
The moment was in late January 2020, when news of a deadly new strain of coronavirus in China had the world on tenterhooks. While hospitals were rapidly being deployed in Wuhan, Terrill and his colleagues at IDT were holding critical conversations with the FDA and CDC, who matter of factly set out what was needed in the wake of the rapidly unfurling epidemic.
“IDT’s mission at that point, because of the urgent need, was to respond aggressively to produce as much as we possibly could,” Terrill tells me, as we reflect on what has been a year of great change, in which the scientific community has shouldered great responsibility. “We transitioned from taking our breath, and realizing the scope of it, to working pretty quickly.”
Rising rapidly to the COVID-19 challenge
IDT — Integrated DNA Technologies — are specialists in custom manufacturing DNA-based tools for diagnostics. The Iowa-based company’s primer and probe testing kit, a key component of the PCR test for COVID-19, was the first to be approved by the CDC.
“The luxury we had was that is what our expertise is, custom manufacturing,” says Terrill. “But it did require us to do some rather extraordinary things, like dedicating an entire team to kitting and packaging the product as well.”
An extraordinary year has called for extraordinary feats. Since that first meeting with the CDC, IDT massively scaled up production, creating a team that could formulate those primers and probes together so that they were reaction ready and ship them around the US, to provide 52 million CDC-approved tests as of November 2.
Terrill explains that the challenge now is continuing to respond to what has become a “steady state of demand for COVID-19 products.” Along with the CDC-approved testing protocol, the FDA has also licensed numerous other kits, all requiring DNA synthesis. Among them are the Charité-Berlin protocol and the Luminex SARS-CoV-2 assay, which IDT also offers primers and probes for.
As we approach winter in the Northern hemisphere, the spectre of another disease looms large on the horizon – throwing yet another spanner in the already encumbered works. “With the onset of the flu season, many testing labs are attempting to test for flu and COVID simultaneously. That is putting additional demands on IDT.”
Science as a candle in the dark, collaboration and CRISPR
Although those demands are often strenuous, Terrill is proud of how the scientific community has come together this year – putting public health at the forefront.
“The urgent need to provide routine assessable testing has, I think, inspired the entire scientific community to deploy their precious assets and resources to this problem,” Terrill tells me, as we discuss how science has innovated in defiance of coronavirus. “There’s a realisation of the obligation to put commercial interests behind the interests of public health – it’s been pleasant to see the community rallying together.”
That concerted approach has spun out some surprising applications of technology better known in other spheres. Earlier this year, IDT paired up with Sherlock Biosciences to deliver a CRISPR-based diagnostic kit with an ultra-fast detection time of less than one hour.
“The Sherlock test is just one example of some pretty creative and outside of the box thinking on how to deploy technologies to solve the COVID riddle,” says Terrill. “The demands of coronavirus have inspired technologies for COVID testing that perhaps would not otherwise have been.”
Although testing and diagnostics currently saturate the media headlines, it is the other strengths of DNA-based technology – including the next generation DNA sequencing (NGS) of viral genomes – that will be equally crucial in the ongoing battle against COVID-19, and will help us respond to pandemics in the future.
“The power of NGS to rapidly sequence any organism, but in this case COVID, is going to be an absolute treasure trove to epidemiologists and virus researchers globally,” Terrill explains. “We can take positive patient samples and ask – which coronavirus mutation, or strain, does this patient have? That ability to distinguish between two different sources is going to allow us to map the progression and transmission of COVID. The public health work that will come from it will be invaluable.”
Next time, we’d best be better prepared
Terrill suggests that a major outcome of the current pandemic will be a call to equip the science community with the tools to better deal with the next potential crisis. “There are plenty of lessons learned from COVID that could be applied to future situations where the response can be more coordinated and perhaps more effective in the shorter term for when we have our next pandemic,” he says. “It’s not a question of if, but when.”
I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Thank you to Peter Bickerton for additional research and reporting in this article.