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University students aid Covid-19 effort

Photos by Johnny Bugeja

University students are providing a vital service to the local Covid-19 effort by testing hundreds of swabs a day.

Inside the quiet University of Gibraltar during its summer break, students are hard at work testing Covid-19 swabs at the Public Health Laboratory.

The small team of students are testing up to 460 swabs a day and on some days clocking 12-hour shifts to get the job done.

These students receive samples of the frontline workers’ sampling and those being tested without symptoms.

Since May 19, they have tested thousands of samples and found 26 positive asymptomatic cases.

The team is comprised of PhD graduate in molecular biology Dr Zoé Vincent-Mistiaen, biomedical sciences undergraduate Matthew Yome, forensic science undergraduate Anabella De La Chica, graduate studying medicine Rebecca Dumas, and PhD student and biomedical engineer Alice Garrett.

The students work on the samples, kitted out in PPE, working solidly for a couple of hours while in their gowns.

“The process is not that long, but the quantity means it takes quite a long time,” Ms Dumas said.

“In each run we will do around 120 patients in one time.”

A run would roughly take some two hours for the students to complete.

Between runs the students will decontaminate the laboratory and themselves.

“Our work really is seeing if we can detect any Covid within the general asymptomatic population, so it is not a diagnostic test,” Ms Dumas said.

The operation at the university laboratory began with Dr Vincent-Mistiaen and Edward Cruz.

“We’ve slowly grown our team, we started with 20 tests a day and now we have eight scientists and four admins,” Dr Vincent-Mistiaen said.

She added that, at the beginning, the small team were working daily until 11pm, and are now regularly working until 8pm and on weekends.

“It’s been intense but quite rewarding,” Dr Vincent-Mistiaen said.

Dr Vincent-Mistiaen finished her PhD last year and was set to begin a research position and the pandemic hit. She then volunteered in an NHS hospital with local consultant microbiologist Dr Nicholas Cortes in Hampshire.

Dr Cortes asked her to come to Gibraltar and set up a lab.

“I thought I was going to be here for a month and I have been here since April and I’m planning to stay for the rest of the year,” she said.

Mr Yome’s second year of university ended prematurely because of Covid-19 and he returned to Gibraltar. Soon after, he began working in the laboratory.

He was set to do a placement year after his second year but, after finding it difficult to secure a placement in the UK due to Covid-19, he will continue at the lab in Gibraltar as part of his placement year.

Admin Lead Jyza Sheriff joined the team and said that although this work was very different from her usual job, she is so “happy” she was called on to aid with the work in the lab.

Next month, some of the students are set to return to university, with Ms De La Chica unsure with her university arrangements and is weighing up her options of staying in Gibraltar for a placement year.

“No one knows what is going to happen when we go back,” she said.

“Even if we go back, the year will be really weird anyway. Not being able to see your friends as much and the classes being online, it won’t be the same experience.”

Ms Dumas is set to return to university to begin her third year in medicine but has been told all of her lectures will be held online.

She is still unsure whether this will happen due to the pandemic.

Ms Garrett was working on a similar test during her PhD in Glasgow, for malaria, but much of the equipment she was using has been donated to the NHS and is being used for Covid-19 testing.

“They’ve already told me if I were to come back, I would not be able to finish the experiments I wanted to do,” Ms Garrett said.

“I’ve been granted an extension so I can stay and work here until it is possible to go back to the UK and finish my studies.”

“So far, I’ve been given a six-month extension, but that really depends on when I can get new equipment or get our lab space back. For now, it is really great to be here.”

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