Opinion

Language, coronavirus and an insight into testing

The Oxford English Dictionary recently added new words to its collection, outside of its normal quarterly publication schedule.The innovation was described by the Executive Editor as part of their effort “to help tell the story of these times that will inevitably become embedded in our language”.  The list reads as a tribute to the terms we’ve become used to hearing in Boris Johnson’s updates and using ourselves: self-isolate/quarantine; shelter in place; social distancing/isolation; and Covid-19 itself, to name a few.

As someone who was more than happy to leave the dizzy heights of GCSE Biology firmly in the past, the recent pandemic has posed a bit of a problem. My desire to understand the mechanics of Covid-19, a virus which has sent the vast majority of the world into lockdown, has been in direct competition with my lack of knowledge and understanding of technical terms.

Whilst I’ve come further in the last few weeks than I ever did in biology classes, my knowledge is still a little shaky at best. Along with others, I’ve recently found myself faced with a new aspect to get my head around.

Testing, it seems, has been touted as one answer to our problems. In April the government (perhaps keen to put behind them paying for 2 million Chinese antibody tests that didn’t work) launched an ambitious goal. They set a target of 100,000 coronavirus tests per day across the UK by the end of April, succeeding to log 122,347 tests on 30 April. With the government’s science minister admitting we might not find a vaccine, testing could be the key to allowing the UK population return to business as usual, or at least more usual.

Given my usual lack of success with blood tests (apparently I have very mobile veins), I decided to educate myself on what a Covid testing experience might be like in case I need to have one to test if I have Covid or whether I have any antibodies from having had the virus.

Luckily for me, two of my friends are subject matter experts and could answer all of my questions. Lizzie Horton a Cell Biologist at UCL, a volunteer in a Covid-19 testing lab,and able to tell me more about what happens to my test when they’ve got it.

Another friend, Georgie Holmes, took a drive-through coronavirus test, part of a random sample set taken by Kings College London.


The Lab

I met Lizzie Horton last May before she’d started her Master of Research in Cell Biology at UCL that September. At the moment, Lizzie is volunteering at the Francis Crick Institute which has become the hub for testing in London. I sat down with her to find out what it’s like working in the lab in corona times.

Lizzie spent most of her Masters course working in the Flu Group at the Francis Crick Institute, which is a joint partnership between UCL and other parties. With the outbreak of coronavirus, the majority of researchers have been asked to leave their labs for the time being unless they are close to the end of their research or need to continue breeding an animal strain.

Lizzie is working in containment level 2 which, whilst sounding dystopian, is a very logical organisation structure. Level 1 is the safest, meaning that tasks can be carried out on the bench. Level 2 involves anything that is dangerous but won’t kill you (for example, the flu). On the other hand, level 3 is where anything to do with Covid takes place. In order to work in level 3, you have to be trained to work in it meaning that there are limited people who can work in level 3 as well as limited facilities.

Level 3 is where the research and development on Covid is taking place in the Francis Crick Institute, alongside the science of the test. On the other hand, Lizzie works in level 2 on sample receipt.

Samples from hospitals, care-homes and drive-through test centres across London are sent to the Francis Crick institute. Each sample is double bagged and Lizzie has to check the barcodes on the sample and bags match up. Once that’s done, she checks that the hospital has put the patient through for the test before sending it to level 3 to be tested.


Taking the Test

Rolling up to Creekmoor Testing Centre, Georgie isn’t afraid to tell me that she felt nervous. Despite having no Covid symptoms, she’d been invited as a volunteer to take the test.

The Covid Symptom Study app was developed by King’s College London and the health science company ZOE. It boasts an impressive 3,544,271 contributors taking 1-minute to report their health everyday. Their AI model uses the data input by contributors to predict Covid-19 infection across the UK, by comparing people’s symptoms and the results of traditional COVID tests.

When Georgie got the ‘You are invited to your Covid test’ email, she was surprised since she hadn’t had any Covid symptoms. A quick search on Twitter helped her to realise that wasn’t the only one with no apparent symptoms to be invited so she booked in her test.

There was an option to home tests but they were currently unavailable. Unlike some of those asked to volunteer in London who had been told that their nearest available test centre was Brighton, Georgie’s drive-through option was only half an hour’s drive away.

For her half-hour slot, she was warned there might be a maximum 15 minutes waiting time but when she turned up with the barcode she’d been emailed in hand, Georgie’s was the only car there. Creekmoor Park and Ride had been transformed: from its ‘Covid Testing Centre’ sign at the roundabout to what Georgie likened to a human conveyer belt system directing the non-existent cars around the carpark.

When the staff member who was to take her test indicated to roll the window down, she was struck by his friendliness. Despite the fact that everyone she met in the car park wore full PPE, she said that their welcoming behaviour put her at ease.

Pressed about the test, she admitted that the nose swab was the most painful. The person taking the test counted to 10 and her eyes were watering by the time it was over. On the other hand, she said that the whole experience had been overall a positive one.

46 hours later, she got a text and email informing her that she didn’t currently have Covid-19. Her test had been an opportunity to get out of the house, and Georgie was positive about her experiences. She stated that “I just felt special that I’d been chosen”.