Coronavirus: lab capable of testing tens of thousands of samples a day opens in Abu Dhabi

The facility, the first of its kind outside of China, is part of the country's plans to help step up testing to contain the outbreak

Timelapse of Masdar lab being built

Timelapse of Masdar lab being built
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A laboratory capable of processing tens of thousands of Covid-19 tests per day has opened in the UAE.

It is the first facility of its kind to operate on such a scale outside of China.

The companies behind the lab said it will help speed up the diagnosis of suspected cases, screening of their close contacts and other high-risk groups, as well as the release of recovered patients, freeing up badly needed hospital beds.

It will initially prioritise testing within the UAE, but could eventually receive samples from neighbouring regions, reported state news agency Wam. The lab, which was set up in just 14 days, will also monitor any mutations in the virus.

"In such challenging times, we feel compelled to leverage our expertise, technological resources and international partnerships to bring rapid, accurate testing capabilities on a massive scale and bolster the detection efforts led by authorities,” said Peng Xiao, chief executive of Group 42, an artificial intelligence and cloud computing firm in Abu Dhabi that is running the laboratory with global genomics company, BGI.

“We thank the UAE leadership’s support in protecting the health and well-being of the country’s residents against this pandemic,” he said.

Located in Masdar City, the facility will run a type of test known as Real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, or RT-PCR.

The test works by taking a sample from a human's throat or nose then stripping it down to the virus' genetic code. In this case, the virus' genetic code takes the form of a single strand molecule of RNA.

The RNA is converted into DNA before scientists add more fragments of DNA, that look like the virus, so they bind together.

The mixture is heated and cooled to trigger specific chemical reactions that create new, identical copies of the target sections of viral DNA. As new copies of the viral DNA sections are built, the marker labels attach to the DNA strands and release a fluorescent dye. Presence of this dye suggests the a positive result for Covid-19.

It is the only RT-PCR test that has been approved by health authorities in China, Europe, the United States and by the World Health Organisation.

This week, UAE health authorities said they had carried out more than 220,000 tests for Covid-19 – the second highest test density in the world.

The country is currently rolling out a network of drive-through testing centres.

The first is already up and running in Abu Dhabi and will be followed by more across Dubai, Sharjah (which will also serve Ajman and Umm Al Quwain), Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah, Al Ain and Al Dhafra.

Each of the centres will perform 600 tests per day.

On Tuesday, health authorities revealed they have rolled out a mass Covid-19 screening programme for as many as 200,000 labourers across the Northern Emirates.

The moves are in line with the WHO’s advice to "test, test, test" for the virus to help contain the global outbreak.

Upscaled testing is expected to result in a surge in confirmed cases of coronavirus across the country.

But experts say this means known infected patients can then be placed into quarantine and get the required treatment to help limit further spread of the virus.

That in turn, should accelerate the country’s ability to return to some resemblance of normality, although restrictions are likely to be in place for some time.