COVID-19: Testing Our Limits

From those most closely involved, hear how Abbott stepped up to meet the testing demand of a global pandemic.

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Diagnostics Testing | Nov. 5, 2020

Among its symptoms, COVID-19 is documented to dull the senses of taste and smell.

We didn't know at the start of this global pandemic.

But as much as we've learned though the intervening months, our memories of what the world was like before the virus may have dulled.

We know that now.

Welcome to Testing Our Limits, Abbott's video documentary series looking back at the earliest days of the novel coronavirus and hearing from those most closely involved in helping the company move quickly to meet the challenge of a growing pandemic.

Travel with us back to a time when acquiring samples was a Herculean challenge, when developing a reliable an assay from a single sequence took the best of our centuries of institutional knowledge, and when the idea of scaling up production in weeks meant starting with a clean sheet because institutional knowledge told you it was impossible. And impossible was not an option.

While it's just been months on the calendar, measured in COVID YEARS — like dog years — it feels like another age before COVID-19 captured the world's attention and fundamentally changed how we live.

In that time, Abbott has developed multiple tests and deployed them around the world by the tens of millions. The journey here started with one step. This is the story of that first test.

Testing Our Limits, Episode 1: A Threat Emerges
It's late in 2019. As word of a new respiratory illness is coming in, Abbott immediately mobilizes to find ways to compress the time it takes to develop a test for production. What traditionally takes years must happen in weeks.

"Everybody came back from holiday in January. The situation was getting worse and not better. So we started, internally, R&D leaders, exchanging emails with each other about what have we learned. Quickly, our weekly meetings, became daily," said Katharine Qiu, Ph.D., vice president for infectious disease research and development, Abbott Rapid Diagnostics.

Testing Our Limits, Episode 2: The Path Forward
It's soon apparent that meeting daily won't cut it. The work needs to happen 'round the clock, 24/7. And even with that dedication from people with decades of experience, they're going to need some good luck to break their typical way too, particularly when it came to acquiring the samples needed to design a test that could identify COVID-19.

"Getting samples that we could use to develop the molecular test was really challenging, mostly because there just weren't very many cases in the United States and we weren't able to bring in samples from other parts of the world," said Mary Rodgers, principal scientist for infectious disease research, Abbott Diagnostics.

Added Gavin Cloherty, head of infectious disease research, Abbott Diagnostics: "Once the first sequence became publicly available, we had a team in place, and as soon as we had that, we literally built a test from a single sequence."

Testing Our Limits, Episode 3: Tackling the Problem Head On
Developing a test in record time means nothing if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration won’t issue an emergency use authorization to open the door for you to get those tests to the people and places who need them most. And while everyone was working fast, standards aren’t negotiable. The test has to work as expected. Just like all the other tests that are going to follow in its footsteps.

“Literally in 30 days we came up with an ID NOW COVID-19 test that can provide a test result in 15 minutes. We submitted it to the FDA, we were granted emergency use authorization and it was an incredible task,” said Rich Roth, senior director for research science, Abbott Rapid Diagnostics.

Testing Our Limits, Episode 4: The Time to Deliver
So the test is ready. It’s cleared by the FDA to bring to the world. Just one challenge remains: How to make enough of them? And how to do it without delay? With the full support from Abbott CEO Robert Ford through the ranks of the company, we ramped production at record speed to meet a demand that has only continued to grow.

“For something like this, it’s typically an 18- to 24-month timeframe. As you’re thinking about how you can pull this off, you have to undo and basically unlearn a lot of the things. The muscle memory part, you need to set that aside and almost start from a complete white sheet of paper. It feels like you’re flying the plane while you’re trying to change the engines at the same time,” said Scott House, senior vice president for quality assurance and engineering services, Abbott.

Added John R. Hackett Jr., divisional vice president for applied research and technology, Abbott Diagnostics: “You can have the best test in the world and if you can’t manufacture it, you’re not going to do many people a great deal of good.”

COMING SOON: Testing Our Limits, Episodes 5-6