By Kate E. Mullins / EPFL
When the full-scale effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to be understood in early 2020, the EPFL Blue Brain Project and ETH Zurich, as part of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, began collaborating with Spiez Laboratory on an online Platform – Academic Resources for COVID-19 (ARC). In a paper published in Frontiers for Public Health, the authors explain how the ARC Platform was set up to be a service to support Swiss diagnostic laboratories that are testing for SARS-CoV-2. The ARC Platform matched requests for critical equipment, reagents and consumable goods required by Swiss diagnostic laboratories involved in combating COVID-19 with supplies available from Swiss academic groups. Since then, with further input from Swiss startup Apptitude SA, the Platform has evolved with the needs of the epidemiological situation and the technology has been open sourced with the purpose to serve public health as a response solution for other countries and communities in the current COVID-19 crisis or in future crises.
In the beginning of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Switzerland, diagnostic testing had to be ramped up in a very short time, but even basic molecular biology laboratory equipment previously easily ordered from a catalogue, was suddenly no longer available. This threatened to put a stop to testing workflows at individual sites or prevent the ramp up. “However, with the ARC Platform we were able to communicate the critical resources that were needed, to academic research groups at universities, where at least limited quantities of these specialized resources could be found, providing vital temporary relief,” explains Prof Roman Stocker, ETH Zurich. “During the first wave, in Switzerland, the ARC Platform handled close to 300 requests and 400 offers from 150 unique users. 55% of these offers ‘matched’ with requests thereby providing a crucial solution in the time of crisis.”
In parallel to this immediate response effort, investment was made into developing a more tailor-made version of the ARC Platform. This proved valuable when the second wave of COVID-19 became evident in Switzerland with the monitoring and operation of the Platform now more streamlined and requiring less expert support. “The ARC Platform had thus evolved into an easy to use and efficient bridging measure that was immediately on-hand to remedy shortages of specialized components, resources and skills typically found in the academic sector”, explains Dr César Metzger, member of the management board at Spiez Laboratory and appointed Lead of the COVID-19 Laboratory Coordination efforts. “One salient ongoing example being the current worldwide shortage in pipette tips, a simple laboratory supply that is often stocked in large quantities in academic laboratories and which is currently being successfully made available to diagnostic laboratories through the ARC Platform.”
A bridge to provide relief in other countries affected by COVID-19
Looking ahead, Axel Pasqualini, from EPFL Startup Apptitude SA who contributed their previous ‘match-making’ technology experience in conjunction with the computing expertise of the Blue Brain, believes that “Deploying the ARC Platform technology can provide quick relief in other countries affected by COVID-19. In particular, in the sourcing of specialized resources such as essential material goods, infrastructure and personnel from the academic sector. The operation of such a Platform benefits from the streamlining of the workflows as described in this study and can be operated by a small team working part-time. Only when large numbers of requests (hundreds plus) need to be matched or if the types of requests are changing rapidly may a larger team be required,” he concludes.
Beyond COVID-19 – a response tool in humanitarian crises
Ultimately, summarizes Prof Felix Schürmann, Director of Computing at Blue Brain, “The importance of the open source ARC Platform technology is that, it is not limited to its current use in Switzerland or, its use in the on-going COVID-19 crisis. It offers a way to respond to unconventional circumstances, in particular when the normal supply chain cannot be used. For example, due to its modifiable ontology the technology can also be applied within other contexts, such as the exchange of hospital equipment or, of humanitarian relief supplies. Furthermore, suppliers and requestors can be of the same origin i.e. communities or healthcare networks. We have already seen the life-saving capacity of the ARC Platform technology and hope it will be used by others throughout the world to continue to make a vital difference to combat this crisis and future crises.”
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