Indeed: I was just getting started when COVID-19 hit. I had to stop all my experiments and was sent to work from home. It was particularly painful as I had to throw away lots of batches of organoids I had just established.
At that time, the demand in the NHS was for doctors with experience working on adults, and I had only done paediatrics so wasn’t much use to them. I found I was stuck (like millions of others!).
So when Qianxin Wu from the Human Genome Editing R&D Team asked if I wanted to help with a COVID-19 test she was developing, I jumped at the chance. At the end of March 2020 we got permission to start doing experiments on site, and aside from COVID-19 sequencing work happening at the Sanger Institute we were pretty much working alone – a whole floor to ourselves, which was totally surreal. I worked some very weird hours, being at home with my son in the morning and then coming to the lab in the afternoon until 10pm. You’ll remember that at that time everyone was highly stressed, everyone wanted a solution but couldn’t see a way out. To be able to come to work in the lab and work on something that could help the pandemic - just to be doing something, it was really a relief.
We were aiming for a way of testing for COVID-19 reliably. We developed an ‘isothermal’ test that amplifies viral RNA at 41ºC, so could be used in a wide variety of places that don’t have access to a PCR machine for immediate results, and also allowed us to sequence samples later on as a pool for centralised data collection.
It’s actually a very clever bit of tech. While antigen tests of course became the standard, at that time these hadn’t come out yet - everyone was scrabbling around for anything that might help. So I’m very proud of that work.