WBVR expands test capacity corona patients

May 27, 2020

On 1 April, Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) started testing the first set of samples from the Canisius Wilhelmina Hospital in Nijmegen to determine if patients or staff are infected by corona. The test capacity will be further expanded on 1 June, which contributes to the testing of every Dutch person that is faced with symptoms. The WVBR contribution in human diagnostics entails a significant increase in the testing capacity for COVID-19 in the Netherlands.

Expansion of testing capacity from June

Every Dutch person with symptoms that resemble those of the coronavirus can be tested from Monday 1 June. The laboratories in the Netherlands are ready to scale up.

As one of the eight pandemic labs, WBVR received a Kingfisher isolation robot from BASF vegetable seeds. This device allows the genetic code of the virus to be isolated. A PCR device was also supplied, by the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), to determine the possible presence of the virus. With these devices, WBVR is able to set up a second test street for diagnostics where parallel testing can take place. This allows the institute to scale up from several hundred tests per week to several thousands per week. Of course, capacity remains available for testing for animal diseases.

Commissioned testing

WBVR carries out tests commissioned by hospitals and GGDs (Public Health Services). The results are reported to doctors working within these institutes - furthermore, medical microbiologist Dr. Alex Friedrich, of the Groningen University Medical Centre, is involved in this process as a medical consultant. We also interact directly with the clients’ medical microbiologist.

Microbiologist Dr. Andreas Voss, of the Canisius Wilhelmina Hospital in Nijmegen, was the first to submit a number of samples from patients and health workers in April. The samples have not been tested elsewhere. ‘The more tests, the better,’ Voss states. ‘You can’t control what you can’t see.’

You can’t control what you can’t see
Dr. Andreas Voss, microbiologist Canisius Wilhelmina Hospital

Crisis organisation capable of rapid growth

‘We are a research institute,’ WBVR director Ludo Hellebrekers explains, ‘but we are also a crisis organisation for the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Management and Food Security (LNV). We are capable of increasing our capacity to 24/7 if there is a crisis or an outbreak of animal disease. Or of a zoonosis, an animal disease capable of transferring to humans, such as is the case with SARS-CoV-2. The research method is the same for animals and humans. And we are now able to apply our knowledge to help the human diagnostics labs that have done such an excellent job under tremendous pressure over the last weeks. Running diagnostics in crises such as this is precisely what we are equipped to do.’

We do not receive samples directly from patients, but we perform tests commissioned by medical diagnostics labs and report the results to them. They remain responsible for human diagnostics.

Running diagnostics in crises such as this is precisely what we are equipped to do
Ludo Hellebrekers, director Wageningen Bioveterinary Research


Through its vast experience and expertise in researching viruses in animals, WVBR is able to deploy PCR-tests for corona patients on short notice. These tests reveal whether or not the coronavirus is present in patients. The tests are carried out in accordance with the RIVM and Erasmus MC protocol. The RIVM checks the accuracy of the tests. This confirms that the tests are of the same quality as those carried out in medical laboratories.

As an additional quality guarantee, we are currently working on getting the tests ISO 17025 accredited. We expect this to be achieved within a few weeks.

Not just the vast experience with testing, but also with digital reporting in large numbers of samples is crucial and relevant during this period.

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Material and personnel

Equipment and personnel are critical conditions in this research. WBVR staff are trained in using the new Kingfisher robot, in addition to the MagNaPure that is used in both animal and human diagnostics. This allows us to use the equipment and other research with flexibility.

Lab technicians from other WBVR labs have been trained to help out should the lab have to work day and night, or should staff fall sick. Several departments within Wageningen University & Research, including Wageningen Food Safety Research, have also made experienced analysts available should this be necessary.

Sufficient materials are available and can be used efficiently by testing large numbers of samples simultaneously.