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How the private sector answered Ireland’s call for help on coronavirus testing

Biopharma companies, big and small, have chipped in to help the State source materials including reagent

It was the second week in March when the HSE first contacted Dublin company, Aalto Bio Reagents. "We've got a real challenge here," said an official.

That was the week when it clicked with the Government and public health authorities that the Republic was facing a major Covid-19 crisis. In just a couple of days, the St Patrick’s festival was cancelled, schools were shut, and the authorities first turned to the private sector for help in setting up a virus testing regime.

Aalto Bio Reagents, which makes ingredients for diagnostic tests for infectious diseases, was among the first companies contacted. Run by chief executive Philip Noone and backed by Limerick investor Gerard Ryan, Aalto Bio had been working with major pharmaceutical companies on developing potential Covid-19 tests since January, when the "Wuhan sequence" was released.

Normally, the company builds materials such as antibodies or proteins that enable infectious disease tests to indicate a positive or negative result. But when the HSE made contact through one of its board members during that crucial week, it was seeking something totally different, a new departure for Aalto.


“We took a call from a member of the HSE’s crisis committee who explained that they were trying to scale up testing,” explains Noone, who bought the company about five years ago with backing from former pharmacist Ryan.

“They needed us to make a lysis buffer. Bigger, more powerful buyers such as the UK were by now out on the international market. There was a shortage of lysis buffer on the market and all of a sudden Ireland couldn’t get access.”

Lysis buffer is a compound that helps to break open cells and kill the virus for handling as part of “front-end” testing, or tests that are carried out on suspected cases to see if they are infected with the virus. It is added in the lab to the patient’s sample before processing.

Aalto Bio Reagents had never developed a lysis buffer before, but Noone was keen to help: “Ireland was in a fire fight. We’ve worked on viruses from all over the world, such as the Zika virus in Latin America and the West Nile virus. But this was the first one in my country, on our doorstep, in our neighbourhoods. We understood that Irish lives were at risk.”

International market

Noone took the HSE’s call on a Friday. He gathered his team of scientists over the weekend to “plot it out”, scouring scientific papers for clues. In one paper, they found the five ingredients needed to make lysis buffer – effectively, a homebrew recipe. Immediately, Aalto Bio began sourcing the scarce raw ingredients on the international market. It didn’t have time to wait for the okay from the HSE.

By Tuesday, Noone’s team had ordered what was needed and swung into action. Over the next couple of weeks, it did an initial production run to make a lysis buffer. Then it scaled up, and very quickly produced enough buffer for several hundred thousand tests.

During the second week in April, it delivered the batch to the HSE, which began making preparations to distribute the buffer to testing labs all over the State. By now, the Government was desperate to ramp up testing and a media clamour around the topic had already begun.

Noone watched the news reports of “reagent shortages” and felt a sense of satisfaction that Aalto Bio Reagents, a small company down a lane around the corner from AIB in Rathfarnham, had stepped up to the plate.

“In four weeks, we did something – developing a lysis buffer from scratch – that you would normally expect to take four or five months.”

The company is now engaged with several major biopharma multinationals to help them make so-called “back-end” or serology tests, which are often described in the media as “antibody tests” that are performed on asymptomatic people to see if they have ever had the virus in their system.

They are distinct from the “front-end” tests that were first needed during the acute stage, and which will still be required on an ongoing basis to identify new outbreaks.

A massive back-end testing regime will also be a crucial part of the State’s strategy to map the virus’s progression through the population.

While Aalto Bio Reagents was in the middle of production, the HSE’s hunt for precious lysis buffer was also continuing elsewhere. The Republic needed every drop it could get. The HSE’s crisis committee made more calls to industry.

On April 2nd, Matt Moran, director of the industry lobby group BioPharmaChem Ireland, a division of Ibec, was quoted in The Irish Times as saying that his members were helping the State source enough reagent for 500,000 tests.

On April 6th, another report mentioned that a critical ingredient needed to produce lysis buffer, guanidine thicyanate, had been sourced. It mentioned that the material had been acquired by Clonmel company, Camida.

Camida, which employs 43 people, is effectively a procurement broker for Ireland's bevy of multinational biopharma giants. Its co-founder and chief executive, David Anchell, this week described it as a "solver of problems".

The specialist company helped the HSE solve its guanidine thicyanate problem. On April 1st, the day before he was reported in The Irish Times as saying reagent for 500,000 tests was on its way, Moran had sent out an email to all BioPharmaChem members asking for their help sourcing the precious ingredient. Camida’s Anchell responded immediately to offer his assistance.

“Matt got back to me straight away. He said, ‘I was hoping you would say that’.”

Anchell turned to Orla Heenan, Camida's sales director, whom he says had already "pricked up her ears . . . she likes a challenge".

She scoured her network of international contacts and, within two hours, she had sourced enough guanidine from a company in another European country. The Irish Times is choosing not to name the supplier or its country, both of which are known to this newspaper, in case the State needs more guanidine in future and faces competition from bigger buyers, such as the United States.

“Orla placed the order and the material was captured for Ireland from that moment on,” says Anchell.


The material had aged slightly, he says, and needed to be processed before it was of use. Within days, it was on the move from the European country where it had been sourced. It arrived at a company in Limerick for the pre-processing.

It was then sent to UCD’s Nibrt (National Institute for Bioprocessing Research and Training) laboratory, where, along with other ingredients, Anchell says it was “converted into lysis buffer”.

From there, the buffer was shifted across UCD's campus for validation at the National Virus Reference Laboratory, whose director is Cillian De Gascun, a member of the State's National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) team of advisers. It was then released to the HSE, and was "ready 10 days ago".

The buffer will help to beef up the State’s coronavirus response, as it gears up to hit its target of processing 100,000 tests per week. A version of that target – 15,000 tests per day – was initially promised by the Government for the third week of March, but the HSE has since said that it will not be achieved until the third week of this month.

Since it stepped in to help during the lysis buffer push, Camida has answered Ireland’s call for other materials to fight back against the new coronavirus. For example, it recently sourced a special type of alcohol that is a crucial ingredient for making make hand sanitisers.

Aalto Bio Reagents and Camida are relatively small, indigenous players. But Ireland also has, proportionally, one of the biggest biopharma industries in the world on these shores, with upwards of €10 billion invested in the sector here over the last decade.

The multinationals on the Irish scene have also chipped in, sometimes with donations of equipment and also with bespoke production.

For example, Hovione, a Portuguese company based out of an old Pfizer plant in Cork, is understood to have produced tens of tonnes of hand sanitiser for distribution to HSE sites.

Stephen Donnelly, Fianna Fáil's health spokesman, says he was told by the HSE that global behemoths, Abbott, which employs 3,000 here, and Roche, which has been scaling back its Irish operations, had also been asked to help in varying capacities.

In addition to testing materials and hygiene products, multinationals were also tapped up early in the crisis to help the HSE source ventilators, as well as personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, an ongoing pinchpoint.

The HSE has repeatedly turned to Ibec's Moran, and also to the State agency IDA Ireland, as conduits to reach out to multinationals.

“We have been using our network at home and abroad to directly assist the HSE in its efforts to respond to the Covid crisis,” said IDA this week. “Internationally, and particularly in China and Korea, we have been working alongside the HSE to procure PPE and critical care equipment.

“In Ireland, we have been working with industry to coordinate donations of equipment and expertise to the national effort to prepare for Covid-19.”

‘Shopping list’

One source said that the HSE has effectively given IDA a “shopping list” of goods it requires, which the jobs agency distributed to its network of international offices. IDA staff across the globe then delved into their contacts books of foreign multinational executives, effectively shopping for the State’s needs.

Another source said that most of the multinationals involved do not want their names made public, presumably because they could then be plagued for help by other countries, or perhaps criticised by others that they did not help.

If the IDA has acted as the HSE’s interlocutor with the biopharma industry abroad, then Moran has effectively fulfilled that role at home.

“The platform in Ibec has been very effective for co-ordinating communications with members, whether it is for PPE or getting the raw materials for the lysis buffer,” says Moran. “Ireland is in a war against a virus, and the global operators located here are dead at the centre of it.”

Donnelly, meanwhile, believes it is critical that the State should never again be left at the mercy of international markets in trying to source more materials for testing, for example, if this crisis rumbles on and on.

“It is essential that the pharmaceutical and also the chemical industries are utilised to build whatever capacity we can manage on this island.”

Back at Aalto Bio Reagents, Noone is humming a similar tune.

“The shortages have made everyone look at their supply chains. Maybe we need to look more at sourcing goods from indigenous companies,” he says.