Capacity building is crucial to the global pandemic response
Bertrand Landel is at the forefront of the pandemic response of an agile diagnostics company. As the person responsible for international Business Development at ender diagnostics, Landel has seen the company grow rapidly to provide testing facilities and assays to meet travel, educational, work, cultural and social requirements across its home turf of Switzerland and far beyond.
ender diagnostics came into being in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the founding team and their knowledge of biotechnology had already proved successful in business. Having met one another in the clinical science setup at the Institute for Infectious Diseases at the University of Bern, ender’s founders developed and patented a technology of isothermal polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for the rapid detection of pathogens. In 2017, under the company name Certus Diagnostics, and then also Livet in 2019, they focused their product knowledge on ensuring quality control in labs and rolling out molecular diagnostic test kits for the detection of infectious diseases in animals. Then, COVID-19 hit the headlines.
“At that point the founders of the company, pivoted into human diagnostics extremely quickly. In six weeks, they had an assay, which was approved for human diagnostics; that’s quick. I think that’s part of what the company is about. We do things extremely quickly and that’s good because this virus also does things extremely quickly,” said Landel.
Today, ender runs an operation at Zurich airport, where it collects samples and runs RT-PCR tests, and also operates labs in both Bern and Zurich where it provides capacity to companies and institutions to ensure they can continue to operate safely. The company is also in talks with overseas clients to provide similar support further from home.
Landel is both dismayed by the behavioral shifts demanded by the pandemic and heartened by the innovation that has occurred as a result of it. He takes heart from the thought that a vast majority of people has adapted its behavior to reconnect with friends and family safely, and that testing and vaccination services, underpinned by technological advances, are making this possible.
“Our cofounders see this pandemic lasting several years, and that when it comes to travel, testing will become part of the norm, just like security checks did after 9/11. Of course it makes me sad that we’ve all got to be so distant from the people we love, but there is this new etiquette around the pandemic and that’s going to help all of us; testing is going to be a crucial part of the evolving solution to COVID-19,” he said.
While that might not be quite the good news one was hoping to end the year on, it certainly offers a pragmatic view of the shape of things to come. Further, it offers a rational view of the importance of testing in our collective futures.
“People have got to seek information and understand what they want and don’t want in testing because a lateral flow or antigen test has its uses in certain very limited cases, but it’s not the gold standard; RT-PCR testing is the gold standard and it’s what needs to be to be normalized one way or another,” he said.
Building pandemic resilient systems
Over the past year, Landel has gained a clear view of pandemic pain points. Responding to these, he believes, will be vital to reinforcing systems that will allow for life beyond lockdowns in the coming years.
The systems he refers to are threefold: regulation that enables a diagnostic response that can match the pace of the viral contagion; lab capacity to meet test demands that are likely to grow rather than diminish; and a labor force that can deploy the clinical testing procedures with due competence.
“Effective testing is about delivering reliable results that people can access and trust, and that means scale and time to result are crucial. That, in turn, translates into quick PCR technology, a significant increase in lab capacity, and reliable logistics. What everybody has had to learn over a year and a half into the pandemic is that even the best technology has its limits if you haven’t built the infrastructure,” he said.
The agility and skilled opportunism of the private sector must be leveraged to address the issue of capacity building, according to Landel. Indeed, emerging economies, especially those reliant on tourism, could benefit from the acumen and speed of private partners to support the government’s efforts to preserve the public health system.
“In all countries, the government clearly has a coordinating role to play, and they need to be there to enforce rules. When it comes to rapid and effective implementation, I think the private sector’s strengths in terms of flexibility and speed are critical. There is a need for real partnership and dialogue because no single party holds the complete solution,” he said.
In a period of time where governments and health authorities have been sideswiped by the emergence of the Omicron variant and the possibility of vaccine escape that it, or a future variant could introduce, Landel is keen to offer pragmatic optimism.
“I think innovation around testing is something that gives me hope right now because we have all learned the hard way of the enormous importance on social interaction. It is what makes life worth living. We need to impose more limited restrictions, and for that to happen, people will demand reliable, cost-effective and easily accessed testing,” he said.