People and partners empowered to fight COVID-19
Although several thought leaders predicted the likelihood of a major pandemic, the advent of COVID-19 still took the world by surprise. From the first report in December 2019 of a cluster of cases, the WHO designated COVID-19 as a pandemic in March 2020. The world was to a large extent unprepared to meet the overwhelming challenge of a collective and coordinated response.
However, the scientific community was able to react faster and contributed more rapidly with broad-scale testing and the development of innovative new vaccines in record time compared with previous epidemics. Scientists rapidly understood the structure and the mechanism of infection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Researchers were able to decode its RNA sequence, identify the structures, and make them available globally. Labs were able to develop rapid diagnostic tests to implement track-and-trace strategies to help contain the spread. And – crucially – pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies were able to develop vaccines within 10 months using highly innovative approaches – a process that typically takes longer than 10 years. By making knowledge publicly available, scientists were able to connect and achieve the previously impossible – like developing a vaccine based on mRNA without even studying the virus in their own lab. By connecting people and empowering partners, the world can indeed achieve unprecedented levels of response.
Even prior to 2020, Tecan was in the position to take on the role of helping connect people with innovation and technology, its applications and regulatory expertise. In normal times, this is Tecan’s core business: to contribute with the technology and know-how to address diseases like cancers, metabolic conditions and many infectious diseases. It is not a coincidence that we were well prepared to quickly re-focus our capabilities on the fight against COVID-19.
Tecan automates complex lab processes; we develop in vitro diagnostic instruments, and we supply consumables that facilitate the realization of millions of tests performed every day in every lab around the world. We are proud that Tecan’s products are a key part of the global response to COVID-19. And we are even prouder of the fact that our employees stepped up to the challenge presented by the pandemic, by passionately supporting our customers side by side. We have many stories to tell from 2020. About how Tecan solutions were in the right places at the right times to support early identification, sequencing and study of the emerging new pathogen. About our contribution to the rapid vaccine development. And about our cooperation with Thermo Fisher Scientific to produce a solution for analyzing up to 8,000 patient samples a day with high-throughput PCR testing.
The pandemic is not over by far. By continuing to help connect people with technology to empower them in their important work to fight the virus, “Tecan is Always There For You.” Perhaps now more than ever, our contribution plays a decisive role in the fight against disease in this, the Century of Biology.
Dr. Achim von Leoprechting
Chief Executive Officer
From discovery to understanding
Shedding light on an emerging new infectious disease
From the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, before people even realized there was an emerging global threat, Tecan solutions were empowering research that would make discovery of the virus possible. In early January 2020, a team at Wuhan University began analyzing deep lung samples from two patients with an unusual pneumonia. Within a week, Dr. Liangjun Chen and his colleagues had not only identified an entirely new human coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), but also sequenced its complete genome—an extraordinary achievement in such a short time span. Sequencing efforts such as these laid the crucial foundation for developing the diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines so urgently needed around the world.
Chen’s lab was one of the first to pinpoint the cause of the disease and to share the full viral sequence with the research community. When a new type of infectious disease emerges, scientists must rapidly determine the causative agent from among many possible pathogens that may be present in the patients’ samples—including RNA viruses, DNA viruses, bacteria and yeast. This is extremely difficult to do with limited patient samples and conventional sequencing methods. Tecan’s Trio RNA-seq kit gave Chen’s team the ultra-high sensitivity needed to confidently identify and characterize the new virus. It also enabled them to profile all other pathogens in the sample, so that they could rule out the possibility that anything else could be causing the disease. Because SARS-CoV-2 is continually mutating, genomic sequencing continues to be essential to identify dangerous new variants and understand whether current vaccines will be effective against them.
In parallel with sequence analysis, researchers are intensively studying all other components of the virus to understand how it interacts with the human body and what makes it so much more contagious and deadly than other viruses of the corona family. A major focus is on understanding what factors and mechanisms trigger the different and sometimes catastrophic immune responses in patients. As more people are infected and vaccinated, serology testing to assess immunogenicity and other factors will become increasingly important. For example, the protein HMGB1 has been shown to be critical for replication of SARS-CoV-2 and may also help regulate inflammatory responses to the virus. Tecan platforms and research solutions, including its high-quality immunoassay kits, are supporting the research that is unraveling the complex contributions of HMGB1 and other proteins to COVID-19 pathology, and enabling identification of new clinical biomarkers. As this knowledge translates to the clinic, Tecan solutions support scale-up of these immunoassays to enable higher throughput.
In 2020 we saw that our ability to study SARS-CoV-2 was enhanced by becoming more interconnected at every level—from global supply chains, to workflow integration, to real-time monitoring. Most importantly, the improvements and insights we gain from studying this pathogen will leave us better prepared to defeat the next.
From sequence to solutions
Shaping the diagnostic tools and facilities needed to fight infectious disease
While it may never be possible to predict exactly when a pandemic will strike, what we can do is leverage the latest science and technology to mount more rapid and coordinated global responses. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is one of today’s most powerful weapons in the fight against infectious diseases. It provides a fast, specific and very sensitive way to detect invading pathogens, even when they are present in extremely low numbers. Long before the first COVID-19 cases in China, Tecan was supporting its customers around the world with equipment to automate diagnostic PCR tests, and Tecan platforms in China were already registered with the Chinese FDA for nucleic acid extraction. This meant that as soon as the viral sequence was known and the first COVID-19 PCR test became available, local diagnostics companies could run it on their existing platforms. As the outbreak accelerated and even more systems were needed, Tecan was only a phone call away.
When the pandemic breached China’s borders, major reference labs and diagnostics providers around the world were similarly poised to automate and scale up testing on Tecan equipment. Abbott Molecular, for example, had powered its m2000 PCR solution with a Tecan platform for sample preparation. With m2000sp systems already deployed globally to automate testing for other infectious diseases, Abbott was able to adapt quickly and obtain Emergency Use Authorization for its COVID-19 assay to be run on those same systems. This meant they could immediately deploy the new test to labs across the U.S., and later in Europe.
As PCR testing emerged as the gold standard approach to monitor and control the spread of COVID-19, the race was on to increase testing capacity around the world. It quickly became clear that even with scaled-up and automated testing, most clinical labs could not meet the growing demand with their existing infrastructures. New high-capacity facilities were urgently needed, and in most cases these would have to be built almost from scratch, in record time. Thanks to its future-forward approach to lab automation, Tecan was there from the very beginning, with the connections, know-how, and technological solutions needed to quickly establish large testing centers in vast empty halls around the globe.
Collaborating to accelerate COVID-19 testing
Taking PCR automation to new heights
In addition to providing automation, Tecan is a central player in the supply of disposable pipette tips, which are consumed in huge numbers during PCR testing and many other analytical procedures. As demand for tips skyrocketed, Tecan tripled its tip manufacturing capacity worldwide until the end of 2020, augmenting this with a $32.9 million contract award by the U.S. Government to build up additional production capacity in the U.S. in 2021. These arrangements have enhanced Tecan’s ability to serve its high-volume customers such as Hologic, who have designated Tecan as tip supplier for their Panther and Panther Fusion platforms.
By summertime, the virus had escalated beyond all expectations and it was clear that testing platforms with even higher throughputs would be needed. This prompted Thermo Fisher Scientific to work with Tecan to develop a completely new walk-away PCR solution. A major differentiator in the partnering decision was the ability to cut development time by integrating Tecan’s well-established Fluent® Laboratory Automation Workstation into the new platform. In addition, the IntrospectTM software allows users to monitor instrument and tip usage instantly from anywhere in the world. This capability is essential for large testing facilities to keep their fleets of PCR systems running at maximum capacity.
Normally a project of this kind could take years to complete, but collaboration made it possible in a matter of months. The new Amplitude System can run up to 8,000 COVID-19 tests a day— significantly more compared to what was previously possible. This groundbreaking new platform takes PCR testing capacity to an unprecedented level and illustrates what can be achieved through the power of connected thinking and coordinated action.
A quick pivot and massive scale-up
Supporting the development of the BioNTech vaccine
As soon as the scale and threat of the COVID-19 pandemic was realized, the world pleaded for a vaccine. The greatest research labs around the world poured their efforts into the monumental task of developing a vaccine for this novel virus. A process that normally would have taken years, was condensed into only a few months thanks to modern, molecular approaches to vaccine development. If anyone was in any doubt that we are in the century of biology, the COVID-19 vaccine story demonstrates how far we have come, and what science and research are now capable of achieving.
The novel mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 use genetic material to produce some key viral proteins inside the human body. When these proteins are presented to the immune system, they induce an immune reaction without the human ever having been exposed to that virus. BioNTech was the first company to receive authorization in the US and EU for an mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 in 2020. The vaccine was developed, tested and approved in less than a year.
In 2018, Tecan installed the first customized Freedom EVO® platform for BioNTech. The purpose of those platforms was, among other things, to produce mRNA as a personalized vaccine to treat different forms of cancer. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, BioNTech initiated a COVID-19 vaccine development program to address the pandemic threat. The speed at which this program was developed is a testament to the ingenuity and dedication of everyone involved. We are proud that through our commitment to empower every lab, every day, we were there and ready to play our part.
BioNTech CEO, Ugur Sahin, M.D. explained in a Press Release dated December 31, 2020: “To address a global challenge like COVID-19, we have undertaken a worldwide effort to develop a well-tolerated and effective vaccine as quickly as science and cutting-edge technology will allow. Despite the damage caused by the virus, I have been inspired each day by the spirit of collaboration and scientific discovery. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be involved in this effort and to play a role in helping the world regain a sense of normality. I would like to thank each and every person that helped make this a reality.”
The ability of BioNTech to quickly develop a COVID-19 vaccine was an important step in the global fight against this pandemic. The principles of flexibility, automation and expertise are key to Tecan’s approach and we are humbled to see them applied in such an important area.
Building new connections
Every Lab. Every Day. Empowered.
We are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a global threat which has taught us that being connected is more important than ever. Going forward, we must all strive towards an even more strongly connected scientific and technological ecosystem. The level of collaboration and connection across basic research, diagnostics and pharma has been a triumph during the dark days of this pandemic and will continue to be important in the future. COVID-19 has shone a light on the scientific community under extreme pressure and scrutiny, and the scientific community has proven its ability to deliver. Tecan is proud to be empowering the world’s labs to achieve what was previously impossible.
2020 was a year of extremes for scientific research. As the fog of uncertainty began to clear and we learned more about the virus and the speed at which it spread, the enormity of the challenge before us became apparent. We learned that flexibility and the ability to pivot quickly are crucial assets in research and healthcare. We saw labs around the world dedicate themselves to tackling COVID-19 and rapidly scale up research and testing. And we helped bring brand new high-capacity facilities online in record time. This pandemic has also shown the world the immense value of diagnostics. Where people with COVID-19 were diagnosed quickly and accurately, public health authorities were able to better control the pandemic and save lives. This is an essential lesson which must be applied to all infectious diseases, both existing ones as well as others that we will surely encounter in the future.
The global diagnostics push during the pandemic also brought several challenges. Large scale testing operations and personal safety were two disparate problems with a single solution: digitalization. The way that labs swiftly adapted to set up remote operations and efficiently improve connectivity has paved the way for digitalization to be embedded into the labs of the future. This will help unleash a new age of efficiency and creativity in solving global health problems.
We will continue to build on our COVID-19 response to make sure that we are always at the cutting edge and are well prepared to serve the scientific community’s every demand. By creating diagnostic and instrument systems to do what has never been humanly possible before, we are demonstrating the power of science and collaborative enterprise to tackle the greatest disease challenges.
Going forward there is a huge opportunity to build on what we have learned from the global response to COVID-19 and apply it to cancer, metabolic diseases and infectious diseases. We can and must forge even stronger connections that will allow us to thrive in an ever-changing environment and, in the process, shape our world for the better.