How a virus made us agile, in a way we could never have expected

By Kim Hulett 1 month ago
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I like to use the analogy that we are all in the same storm – just in different boats. Little boats, Big cruise liners, some with large sails, others with speed engines, some requiring maintenance, and all with different crews navigating. The storm is unpredictable and no-one knows just how bad it will get, when it will die down, or what it will be like when we come out of it. So, what’s important now is adaptability and agility to navigate the storm with the resources you have available.

Next Biosciences’ main focus has always been stem cell banking, genetic testing and biologics. This is the heart of our business and where our key expertise lies. When we were first approached to set-up a Covid-19 testing lab, we declined, in order to remain focused on our core business.

We were subsequently asked again to help with healthcare worker testing. The current labs were swamped and the long turnaround times were affecting the healthcare industry in many ways. It was then that we realized that firstly, we needed to help, but more importantly, that we could make a meaningful difference in doing so.

We were in a very fortunate position in that we had built our business for robustness and resilience.  We were prepared to be able to adapt and be agile.

Many years ago when we were upgrading our lab, we had thought about future expansion and actually commissioned additional lab space on the other side of our building which was now sitting, ready and waiting. We also had expertise in molecular biology, as well as some lab equipment that could be repurposed. All of our processes were already ISO accredited.

Making this decision quickly, meant pulling in all of our resources. Our incredible team worked 24/7 from the day the lockdown started to set up our Covid lab, sourcing equipment, reagents, hiring new staff (when everyone was laying off staff and advising us against hiring), developing a Covid tech platform, getting our processes validated and registered for SANAS accreditation.

We went from ideation to being validated within a record time of 2 weeks.

It was a crazy fortnight and it showed us that anything is really possible, if you put your mind to it. It was an absolutely exhausting, yet also a thrilling and inspiring time, knowing that we would make a real difference.

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We ran our first Covid-19 test on the Easter weekend. It was for a Dad who had been air-evacuated into South Africa with his 10-year old daughter who was in an induced coma and taken to hospital. She had been separated from her dad who was in isolation and not allowed to be with her until he had tested negative for the virus.  After four days, the dad was still waiting for his test results and his daughter was starting to come out of her coma. She couldn’t speak English. The risk was that she would wake up to faces she didn’t recognise, which would be awful for any child that age. Fortunately, we were able to run his test that Saturday morning. After testing negatively, he made it in time to join his daughter at her bedside later that afternoon.

Since then we have been testing frontline workers and we are now offering testing to corporates for their employees, with results within 24 hours.

There is still so much to learn about this virus and to try and predict what the future holds in an unprecedented situation like this is almost impossible.

What we have learnt is that during times of crisis, to focus on what you can control. You cannot control the storm, but you can adjust your sails or turn the rudder, as you know how your boat will respond.

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 Kim Hulett

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