SCK CEN helped increasing COVID-19 testing capacity in Belgium

On 30 March 2020, the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN) handed over a qPCR equipment to the Belgian Task Force. In that way, SCK CEN contributed to the national effort to increase testing capacity in Belgium from 2,000 to 10,000 tests per day.

At the beginning of this year, the (Western) world was a totally different place. A couple of cities in China were locked down because of fears of potential spreading a flu-like virus, but the rest of the world didn’t seem to be bothered with that too much. Not yet.

Several months later, over three million people worldwide have been positively diagnosed as being infected, more than 210,000 official Covid-19 deaths have been counted, especially in Europe and the USA. Social distancing measures are now widely accepted and most countries are still in (partial) lockdowns whilst others are gradually starting to loosen their measures.

It is widely accepted that one of the most important actions against the further spreading of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the testing and isolation of infected persons. In order to do so, the Belgian government assigned a special Task Force, led by minister Philippe De Backer, to take up the challenge to increase its daily testing capabilities from 2,000 to 10,000 samples per day.

The testing of these samples occurs via a method termed qRT-PCR, short for quantitative reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. The generalized protocol for the technique that is applied in Belgium has been developed by the University of Liège. In brief, the purpose of this test is to look for viral genomic material in nasal swabs from suspected infected individuals.

Key in this experimental set-up is the PCR reaction in which the viral genomic material, which may be present in minute quantities, is amplified billions of times to detectable levels within a matter of little over one hour. In order to help the Belgian Covid-19 Task Force, SCK CEN has decided to make one of their qPCR instruments available for performing these tests.

Since early April, the instrument is being used at one of the reference centres where the majority of Belgian tests are being conducted.

SCK CEN is happy to be able to help in this way to a better understanding and mitigation of the spreading of the virus, hoping that it will lead to a faster alleviation of current measures which put a heavy burden on both the society and the economy.

Dr Roel Quintens