Clinical Lab Manager - News, Editorial and Products for the Clinical Laboratory
Photo of COVID-19 blood sample tubes with ID labels lined up in rows

The Technologies that Helped COVID-19 Testing Labs Scale Up

Lab automation can help labs overcome challenges exacerbated by the pandemic to increase testing

May 14, 2021
MaryBeth DiDonna
Matthew Hamilton, MBA

Matthew Hamilton, MBA, has been the president of Hamilton Storage Technologies in Franklin, Mass., for nearly seven years. He has spent more than 14 years in the life sciences, working tirelessly to positively impact the community through innovative thinking and problem solving. A biologist by training, Matthew worked as an HLA department lab technician before his tenure at Hamilton Storage. He holds a bachelor of science from the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as a global MBA from Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

Q: What challenges in clinical labs have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic?

A: When the pandemic started, testing was the top priority and with it came a number of challenges for labs. Scaling the tests was challenging, and that was made more difficult by supply chain issues. In this chaotic and ever-changing environment, labs had to make sure that they had the right materials, the right processes, and the right equipment. This is always an issue for labs, and the pandemic certainly amplified these gaps.

Q: How has automation helped clinical labs during the pandemic?

A: As COVID testing ramped up, labs suddenly had ten times their usual number of samples to process, and it’s very difficult to keep up with such an exponential increase while people are processing the samples manually. By using manually intensive practices, labs often don’t have the ability to efficiently scale up their processes, especially in terms of skilled labor, which is often the most limiting factor.

Automation allows labs to streamline their procedures, and once they’ve validated one production line they can simply duplicate it. We’ve seen labs start to duplicate their automated production line instead of setting up new lines from scratch, and that’s been a game-changer. Over the course of the pandemic, the testing response time has been improved tremendously from where it was in the early stages. This is a testament to the power of automation.

Q: Can you tell me about some of Hamilton's automated benchtop devices, and how they have benefited labs during the pandemic?

A: Our line of cappers and decappers allows labs to increase throughput while reducing the risk of cross-contamination. Manually capping and recapping tubes is very time-intensive and has the potential to create a bottleneck in the lab because there are physical limits to how many samples are processed. It can take a person more than ten minutes to decap 96 tubes, but it takes our LabElite DeCapper less than 60 seconds. And our I.D. Capper combines an identification system with a decapper to provide further efficiency.

When you automate the entire workflow, you eliminate the risk of cross-contamination, which means increased sample safety and fewer false positives. Most importantly, our automated systems can process samples 24/7, so there’s practically no downtime and labs can easily scale up if the need arises.

Q: How is automated cold storage helping clinical labs respond to the pandemic?

A: Right now, we’re in an acute response mode, but eventually labs are going to switch gears and become more research focused. Labs are going to need to start storing samples for research applications, and that’s going to require automation to efficiently track, process, and store all the sample types. 

It’s looking like COVID-19 will become similar to the flu, with seasonal peaks and different variants each year. Labs will need to be able to use their stored samples to stay ahead of the next variants, and our automated storage solutions will keep those samples secure and easily available.

Q: What else would you like to tell me?

A: A key piece of our success, that is often understated, is that the analytical methods are an integrated part of the platform and competencies. Manufacturing is only half of the story. The testing shows that the manufactured product is suitable for clinical infusion. The testing is often the more complicated part to getting to clinical readiness. The analytical platform is a huge part of why people come to us. If you have the right analytical methods, you can separate the product from the process.