UK’s first megalab opens in Leamington Spa to bolster fight against Covid-19


The UK’s first megalab, which the government says is one of the centrepieces of UK’s future test and trace infrastructure, has opened in Royal Leamington Spa.

It will be processing hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 samples every day to rapidly detect new variants and help stop the spread of the virus.

As part of the UK’s NHS Test and Trace network, the laboratory is the biggest of its kind in the UK and will use new technology to process even more tests and adopt the pioneering new genotype assay testing to quickly identify variants of concern and new mutations. This will help the UK’s disease detectives take action to supress outbreaks as society reopens, using tools such as surge testing.

The new laboratory is at the heart of the UK new Health Security Agency (UKHSA)’s plans for the next part of the battle against the pandemic and in recognition of her outstanding contribution to our current understanding of genomic sequencing – one of our weapons in the fight against COVID-19 – the laboratory is named after Rosalind Franklin.

The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory aims to create and upskill scientists with a programme of training and, with close links to universities, inspire a new generation to choose a career in STEM. The new laboratory will create up to 1,500 jobs when fully staffed, with more than 300 people on-boarded already and  700 more joining soon. Around 60 per cent of the staff hired so far coming from within 30 miles of the site.

Under the leadership of former deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries, the UKHSA’s top priority is managing the spread of COVID-19 as restrictions ease, and building the UK’s capabilities to ensure we are prepared against other potential future threats.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “This laboratory will be one of the centrepieces of our efforts to manage this virus in the future, processing hundreds of thousands of positive COVID-19 tests a day to help us stop cases becoming outbreaks.”

The publicly owned, very-high-throughput laboratory will use automation and robotics.

In the coming months, the laboratory will carry out genotype assay testing, using ePCR machines to rapidly detect COVID-19 mutations indicating whether positive test samples contain known variants, and genome sequencing to confirm known variants and identify any new mutations.

The strength of the UK’s genomics science base and diagnostics sequencing industry has allowed the UK to genomically sequence over 600,000 positive COVID-19 tests, rapidly identifying COVID-19 variants and capturing critical data, enabling scientists to track and stay ahead of mutations in the genome of the virus.

Chief Executive of the UKHSA Jenny Harries said: “Our mission at the UK Health Security Agency is to learn the lessons of this global pandemic and positively harness them in how we prepare and steel ourselves against future health threats.

“The pandemic has provided us with clear evidence, on a daily basis, that you can only challenge viruses of this kind with the right testing and genomics infrastructure in place.

“The Rosalind Franklin Laboratory is going to be a critical scientific addition to how we manage this virus in the months ahead, arming us with data and intelligence on the spread of variants that will inform decision-making and ultimately, save lives.”

UKHSA will bring together world-leading public health science, cutting-edge capabilities in data analytics and genomic surveillance and, at-scale testing and contact tracing to look at all possible health hazards.