Labs in S'pore ramp up operations to cope with surge in cases

The rise in Covid-19 cases means that testing is also on the rise. To process tests with more speed and accuracy, Pathnova Laboratories@LKC Medicine has been using a robotic arm to transfer Covid-19 samples for testing.

SINGAPORE - Laboratories in Singapore have ramped up operations to cope with the surge in Covid-19 cases, which number in the thousands daily.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said there are now 29 testing laboratories in Singapore. 

In total, they can conduct up to 90,000 Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests per day. 

This is up from the 27 laboratories the country had in May, which were able to process 70,000 tests daily. 

MOH said it closely monitors the total lab capacity utilisation rate to ensure that there is sufficient buffer to meet any sudden surges in demand, such as special operations mounted in response to clusters.

One of the newly opened labs is run by medical technology firm Acumen Diagnostics. 

The new lab in Science Park Road opened this month, doubling Acumen Diagnostics’ capacity to process polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests from 3,000 to 7,000 daily.

Its staff strength, including lab staff and senior managers, has also doubled from 40 to 80.

Dr Ong Siew Hwa, its chief executive and chief scientist, said: "We have expanded our lab's physical space, added automation and grown our team, including our in-house logistics team that brings the samples back from test sites islandwide."

Half of the samples it receives are from migrant worker dormitories, while the rest are from regional screening centres, Swab and Send Home clinics and special testing operations.

These PCR tests are then processed by labs such as Acumen Diagnostics.

Noting how there is no room for any delay and mistakes especially when handling swabs for Covid-19 clusters, Dr Ong said: "When the hawker centres or markets are involved, these people are waiting to know if they can go back to open their stalls.

"People need to know (if) they can return to school to sit an exam, or board that flight."

PCR tests look for genetic sequences specific to Covid-19.

In most labs, viral RNA from the samples is extracted and converted to DNA in a method known as reverse transcription. This genetic material is then processed within a PCR machine, which will amplify the DNA until lab technicians can identify whether they have found Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

While self-administered antigen rapid tests (ART) will take only 20 minutes to complete, the turnaround time for a PCR test is usually within 24 to 48 hours.

The Health Promotion Board told The Sunday Times that, since May, to meet the increased demand for testing operations, it has hired and trained 200 additional swabbers.


Mr Melvin Ng preparing samples in a multi-purpose liquid handling machine for Covid-19 testing at Pathnova Laboratories. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Another 600 swab assistants and support staff have joined, bringing its total strength to 2,600 operational staff.

Some labs, like Pathnova Laboratories @ LKCMedicine, are able to deliver results for clinically urgent swabs in three hours with the help of technology.

Since last month, the lab has been using a robotic arm to transfer Covid-19 samples for testing, ensuring speed and accuracy.

Set up in March, the lab is operated by Pathnova Laboratories with Nanyang Technological University's Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine supporting and hosting it.

Associate Professor Eric Yap, the lab's medical director, said big data is used extensively to ensure every Covid-19 result it processes is accurate and fast.

He said: "We track some 60 parameters for every sample that comes in, such as who receives the sample, what time the sample is processed and every staff member who handles the sample. This is all for traceability."

Pathnova's chief scientist, Dr Ian Cheong, added that the lab will soon fully automate the way it reports results so these are uploaded into the national healthcare records in real time, reducing turnaround time for the samples.