Developing a portable Covid-19 testing lab... inside a shipping container

Teng Yuhong

21 May 2020


A team led by researchers at OpenCell and King’s College London have developed a low-cost Covid-19 testing laboratory inside a 12m (40ft) shipping container that can perform 2,400 tests per day: CONTAIN.

Shipping containers have been a preferred choice for deployable labs for a number of years, but this is the first fully functional lab ready for immediate deployment anywhere in the world created for Covid-19 testing. CONTAIN units can be deployed anywhere provided it sits on an area of flat, solid ground with access to basic utilities (electricity and water, for example).

The lab houses an automated system of low-cost robots to perform most of the lab work. Testing is carried out in three stages: sample handling, RNA extraction, and real-time polymerase chain reaction (or qPCR) tests.

A graphic of an open CONTAIN unit depicting the three stages: sample handling, RNA extraction, and real-time polymerase chain reaction.

Image credit: OpenCell

A data management system tracks test samples using QR codes and unique sample IDs. Test results are obtained within five hours of swabbing, and then securely sent to the patient or healthcare provider.

The lead author, Kenneth Walker, says: “We managed to bring together an experienced team in a short space of time and in particular solve the big challenge of doing tests quickly and at low cost. The automation work required was a big step and this is the first time a team has done this with open source robotics that don’t cost the earth.”

The system uses chemical reagents that are compatible with the Centre for Disease Control’s (CDC) international guidance, as well as open-source processes. This helps to avoid the current supply chain issues facing proprietary equipment from a small number of manufacturers.

Graphic depicting the rapid deployment of CONTAIN units across the UK.

Image credit: OpenCell

The South London Specialist Virology Centre at King’s College Hospital has undergone a rapid transformation to respond to the current pandemic. Head of the department, Dr Mark Zuckerman, says the department went “from a very busy clinical diagnostic molecular workload, as the hospital has a complex population of patients, to performing hundreds of COVID tests daily.”

Zuckerman added that the partnership with OpenCell will help to “fast track the required accreditation to make these laboratories available nationally and internationally”. This will help the effort to control the epidemic in densely populated environments like workplaces, schools, and care homes.

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