By early May, the LIMS architect for an Ivy League health system’s biobank and his team of ten felt like they’d been hit by a train. COVID-19 research had accelerated to bullet train speeds, driving monumental volumes of lab work, volunteers and new research studies while demanding innovative clinical system integration and workflows.
When COVID-19 first emerged and work initially began to slow, researchers saw it as an opportunity to catch up with some legacy studies. Within a week, however, research began to spin up on SARS-CoV-2, and things changed…fast.
That’s when the train first made an appearance on the tracks. As an academic medical center, volunteer researchers embraced the challenges of COVID-19 – and studies started to pour into the Biobank. Over the next six weeks, the full-time LIMS team of 9 undertook the impossible.
It normally takes time to implement and begin a new research study…typically about 4-6 weeks. But normal timelines were unworkable given the rapidly escalating pandemic and its alarming infection rates.
Countless New Challenges
But it wasn’t simply a matter of speeding up the process. COVID-19 also introduced countless new challenges. Signatures all needed to be collected electronically. Informed consent needed to be remotely captured.
Safety protocols needed to be developed and implemented – a problem in its own right – given all of the unknowns of the virus. There were questions: how should samples be handled in-house? What about sample handling during transfer between labs? How should virus aerosolization be controlled?
More challenges emerged for the LIMS team. Staff were shifting departments, joining new studies, requiring new LIMS permissions. Fifty new users needed to not only be added to the LIMS, but quickly brought online and trained in how to operate it.
Samples, which had been hand-labelled initially, had to be recoded and added to the Biobank. Supplies rapidly became an issue. The central processing lab needed to integrate the LIMS with different clinical systems to capture comprehensive data.
New interfaces…new data structures…entirely restructured workflows…everything needed to be rethought on the fly.
All of these challenges merged while the world was shifting to the new WFH, social-distancing reality, and researchers needed studies to begin yesterday. The train, moving at full speed, had arrived.
While the biobank’s LIMS team felt like they were hit by the train, they did the impossible and kept the train moving forward. The 4-to-6-week timelines typical of new studies were condensed to mere days. One study came online just four days after it was designed – unimaginable by virtually any standard. Having a LabVantage LIMS allowed the team to both scale up and shift workflows on the fly, but the sheer volume and speed of work has been exhausting.
One War, Fighting on Three Fronts
For millions of people around the world, it starts with a fever, a cough, or maybe difficulty breathing. In some cases – those deemed severe enough to warrant intervention – it often ends in a hospital’s ICU.
For lab technicians, it starts away from the battles raging on our patient-facing medical front lines. But it’s all part of the same war.
This particular battle begins with a swab, isolated inside a test tube. These are the front lines of the testing war – widely recognized as the definitive fight to stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks.
The final front in the coronavirus war is in research labs around the world, as the search for vaccines, treatments and new testing modalities has ramped up to lightspeed.
All three fronts face unimaginable resource challenges.
- For the front-line clinical war raging in hospitals across the globe, doctors & nurses find themselves in dire need of PPE, ventilators and other supplies in short supply.
- For testing labs confronting unparalleled testing volumes? Time is the foremost enemy as sample volumes overwhelm understaffed labs dealing with their own shortages.
- For researchers, sample & data management are both the solution to the problem as well as the problem itself.
Biobanks & Research Labs Confront COVID-19
COVID-19 spreads quickly and often asymptomatically. Because of this, experts widely agree we need rapid testing, and more of it. Such testing generates an extremely high volume of valuable biospecimens, but these volumes are straining biobanking sample management capabilities.
In some cases, biobanks have historically handled sample volumes which were relatively small and static. In other cases, systems may have been put into place to handle larger volumes, but they aren’t adapted to COVID-19 workflows.
To further complicate a rapid ramp-up of COVID-19 research, budgets may be limited, few dedicated IT resources may be available and typical LIMS implementation timeframes aren’t well-suited to the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transforming Biobanking Informatics to Address COVID-19
When biobanks (and other labs) engage in the search for upgraded laboratory information management systems, there are a typical collection of challenges, issues, features and benefits they confront. COVID-19 has not only generated new challenges, but has increased the velocity at which they must be overcome.
Here are some of the top informatics challenges facing COVID-19 biobanks & researchers:
Coronavirus-Related Workflows & Test Methods
Companies have responded to the emergence of novel coronavirus by creating better and faster protocols and test kits. Multiple techniques – including RT-PCR, Isothermal Nucleic Acid Amplification and Serology – have been implemented.
The inclusion in a pandemic LIMS of COVID-19 extraction and testing workflows (including the ones mentioned here) with related master data is critical to ensuring rapid deployment. This extends not only to COVID-specific workflows, but also OMICS workflows and CDC test methods – all of which are critical to COVID research, maximizing the value and usefulness of a COVID LIMS.
Infrastructure & Cost
IT infrastructure tends to be a challenge for all labs, virtually all the time. It demands extensive resource planning, analysis and more – which translates into time, a commodity COVID researchers lack. As anyone who has ever been involved in an on-premise LIMS install can attest, infrastructure has historically been one of the largest hurdles to overcome with advanced lab informatics.
SaaS and Cloud computing have changed the landscape, enabling rapid deployment, instantaneous (and limitless) scalability, lower costs and few – if any – resources (think: servers, and the physical space, utilities and manpower needed to manage them).
Delivering a COVID LIMS accelerator as a SaaS solution allows research to start almost immediately, without waiting for infrastructure.
COVID also brings an additional, immediate challenge which – with a typical biobank, for example – is usually a more abstract, longer-term concern: scalability. With still-escalating sample volumes, a pandemic LIMS designed for COVID-specific work must scale on demand to address the growth in testing volumes.
Speed of Deployment
LIMS implementation is a well-worn topic – we’ve covered it here on the blog, as well. When IT administrators and Lab managers hear the phrase ‘LIMS implementation,’ they either roll their eyes or – depending on their past experiences – run shrieking in abject terror. And it’s true: implementation, especially on a heavily customized LIMS (a big ‘no-no’), can be a long, painful process.
At LabVantage, we made the decision several years ago to jumpstart the process by virtue of pre-configured LIMS accelerators – whether for biobanking, pharma, the food & beverage industry or others. These systems have demonstrated that implementation can be accelerated with great success.
We’ve likewise done this with the LabVantage COVID-19 LIMS accelerator (see below). Combined with the advantages of a SaaS offering (discussed above), deployment can occur in as little as 4 weeks without infrastructure.
The LabVantage COVID-19 LIMS Accelerator: Turnkey SaaS Solution
Specimen Management | Workflows | Testing | Research
LabVantage has adapted its world-leading Biobanking LIMS to address workflows, CDC testing, and research applications in the urgent fight against the SARS-CoV-2 virus and resulting COVID-19 disease. Delivered as a comprehensive Software-As-A-Service (SaaS) solution, the LabVantage COVID-19 LIMS Accelerator requires no infrastructure investment. The pandemic LIMS is ‘pre-configured,’ meaning minimal implementation time with go-live possible in less than four weeks.
The COVID LIMS accelerator includes LabVantage’s full market-leading biobanking capabilities, with COVID-19 extraction and testing workflows. It incorporates multiple protocols defined by the CDC for COVID-19 testing and can easily accommodate the addition of standard and customer-determined protocols for testing using a variety of approaches.
The LabVantage COVID-19 LIMS Accelerator is available immediately, and includes full startup and training services. For more information on LabVantage’s COVID-19 Accelerator or to get a demo today, visit https://www.labvantage.com/labvantage-covid-19-biobanking/.