Elif Akyuz, Ph.D, is a founding partner and R&D Director for Reagents for Anatolia Geneworks , a molecular diagnostics manufacturing company in Istanbul, Turkey. Anatolia Geneworks is one of the few companies that produces novel coronavirus (nCoV, or COVID-19) test kits, and they supply those kits plus other diagnostic tools to health ministries, hospitals, and doctors in several countries in Europe. This is the story of how her company and its scientists are working to meet the sudden and extraordinary demand for COVID-19 testing products.
In mid-December, my partner and I were watching the news. We heard about this novel coronavirus that had started to pop up in China, and we knew then that it would eventually spread to other parts of the world. What we didn’t anticipate was how rapidly the virus would spread, and how deadly it would be.
Fortunately, we had the foresight to begin production of a test kit right then, in mid-December, when the outbreak was just beginning. You have to understand that nCoV is simply a new strain of the coronavirus. SARS and MERS are also strains of coronavirus, and we were already selling those test kits. So, we acted swiftly, and did what we always do. We reviewed the literature and obtained the genomic sequences of the nCoV so we could use them to develop our tests. We tested the kits using international reference materials and validated them in Italian hospitals.
At the start of the epidemic, we were one of only six diagnostic supply companies in the world that were producing nCoV test kits. At that time, the virus was only in China. Then almost immediately it was in Italy. Within weeks, we had sold more than 150,000 tests to Italy, U.K., France, Poland, Ukraine, Portugal, Bangladesh, UAE, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Jordan, Egypt, Canada, Georgia, and Moldova.
It was unbelievable. Even from inside the healthcare industry, it was difficult to comprehend the enormity of this outbreak. Aside from the nCoV kits, we sell 200 other products. We are a relatively small company compared to the mega corporations like Siemens and Roche. Under normal circumstances, we produce about 1.5 million total tests per year, or around 29,000 in a week. But the demand for this one product has caused us to divert all of our time and raw materials into nCoV. Now, we are making 120,000-140,000 tests every week.
And people needed our tests so urgently! Normally, customers try to order our products in batches and place their orders well in advance in order to minimize shipping costs. Not so with nCoV. They didn’t care how much it cost to ship. They wanted the tests now. Usually, a test like this would take two weeks to produce because of the specialized nature of the product and the raw materials that go into it. But people wanted them in two or three days. So we worked longer hours, we found new routes for suppliers of raw materials. We were like Wall Street brokers with one hand on a PC and the other on the phone constantly to reply to questions and requests for our tests.
In January, the Poland Ministry of Health contacted us, desperate for tests. We have been supplying other products to them since 2012, and they knew they could count on us for quality test kits. We told them of course we could get them kits. It would take three to four days to ship them, and they would then have to spend about two days going through customs before they could be transported to Poland. But they needed the tests so urgently, they obtained special diplomatic permission to bypass customs by sending a private jet to our lab to pick them up.
In the last few weeks, airports have closed, making it difficult both for us to ship tests to the hospitals that need them, and for our suppliers to get us the raw materials we need to make the tests. My partner and I are constantly looking at shipping routes and talking to carriers to find new and creative ways to get things where they need to be.
We have to make difficult decisions, as well. We have only so many hours in a day and a limited amount of materials available, so there is a limit to the number of tests we can sell each day. We have surprised ourselves by meeting much higher demand than we previously thought possible, but we still can not sell as many tests as our customers would like. So we have to decide, who gets the tests first? There may be a regular customer who put in their order first, but hospitals in Italy are overwhelmed with sick people, so they get their tests first. We have to negotiate with some customers. What if we send you half of your order today and the second half later in the week so that we can help another customer experiencing a high need?
We are all working in a frenzy. We sleep six and a half, maybe seven hours per night, then go to work and stay until it’s time to go to bed again. We usually stop for a one-hour lunch break and two short coffee breaks, but some scientists have worked through lunch on occasion. We know that our customers need us here, doing this important job. We are helping doctors save lives.
The people who work for me are highly specialized biologists and geneticists, and they are all enthusiastic to do whatever we can to help stem the spread of this disease. Especially in the beginning, we were very tired. We have to make sure we are getting good nutrition, plenty of fluids, and practicing good hygiene to keep ourselves healthy. But we wouldn’t have gotten into this business if we weren’t passionately dedicated to our work. We know that we are touching patients’ lives in a big way, and that is what keeps us going.
Nicole Roder is a freelance health journalist based in Maryland.
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