Pandemic and beyond: The value of diagnostics in disease prevention

Access to fast and accurate diagnostics is critical to patients and healthcare systems

In early 2020, as coronavirus disease spread and people were dying, much of the world mobilized to see what could be done to stop this monster in its tracks.

It was soon evident there would be no quick fix for what would become a global pandemic. The virus has caused nearly 6 million deaths to date. Rapid access to testing, accelerated vaccination development, masks and social distancing, however, are helping parts of the world gain better control.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that access to fast and accurate diagnostics in all diseases is critical to patients and healthcare systems - and not just during a pandemic. It has shown us that as a global community, we can move mountains.

For Roche, it meant getting a high-volume molecular test to market in 38 days, compared to the typical timeframe of 18 months. It showed that we could accelerate development of multiple new and innovative tests and digital solutions to help us understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and how to better contain and prevent the disease. It showed us we could ramp up our infrastructure through significant investment, allowing us to manufacture and deliver our diagnostic solutions around the world quickly.

But that preparedness didn’t happen overnight. 

“We had been building our muscles over many years to fight this battle,” said Palani Kumaresan, who leads Research & Development for Roche Diagnostics Solutions. “We had the right people on our team with the right mindset and scientific expertise. And when the moment came, we rose to the occasion and were able to deliver testing innovations at a pace that was unprecedented.”

Our ability to get a SARS-CoV-2 test to market within six weeks started with the Roche  Infectious Disease Emergency Response Preparedness Team, which continually assesses the landscape for emerging pathogens.

“One of the biggest concerns is when we see reported cases of a pathogen jumping from animals to humans, as we did here,” Palani added. “That's something you pay very close attention to.”

Science fueled by courage

Once the first coronavirus genome sequence came in, scientists went to work to develop an assay to accurately identify the pathogen quickly. For Roche, that meant that we had teams working across multiple time zones to achieve a common goal. Simultaneously, the company partnered closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory bodies to accelerate timelines.

“Today our multiple tests and technologies are used to better understand waves of the virus as it shifts and changes,” Palani said. Through growing partnerships with industry, academia, government agencies and other organizations, we are gaining knowledge around vaccine efficacy and when a booster would likely be needed. We are helping to understand the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and how a patient’s viral load can determine if they are contagious.

Miriam Fend, who globally oversees the portfolio of PCR testing systems for Roche Diagnostics Solutions, said the pandemic has brought an inspired sense of courage in developing tests for other life-threatening diseases as well.

“When we have a diagnostics offering in any disease that is truly a breakthrough and badly needed, we can be courageous and work with regulatory agencies to tell that story, to bring that solution to patients as quickly as possible,” she said.

Miriam said the pandemic has also emphasized the importance of companies like Roche in making sure laboratories have the technology they need to run at top efficiency. “In the case of COVID-19, labs are responsible for reporting back to health authorities the number of infections detected. Supporting labs with the right technologies to assist with these  requirements in challenging environments benefits health systems and patients in a variety of  disease states,” Miriam said.

close up of a virus
Shining a light on diagnostics

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the role diagnostics play in disease prevention, diagnosis, prognosis, therapy selection and overall disease management. Whether it’s infectious diseases, cancer, cardiac disease, sepsis, diabetes or any other serious health threat, a person’s healthcare journey starts with - and depends on - diagnostics.

“Early, accurate diagnostics are the starting point for preventing serious diseases and improving people’s lives,” said Cindy Perettie, Head of Roche Molecular Labs at Roche Diagnostics Solutions. “Lessons learned in the pandemic - in combination with our significant investment in research, development and infrastructure - are benefitting healthcare systems and the people they serve. We are helping healthcare institutions transform the way diseases can be prevented, detected, managed and monitored, which can help people live longer, healthier lives.”