Testing and Tenacity During the Pandemic: Attilio Focarete – PerkinElmer, Managing Director of Italy, Spain, Portugal
Italy designated March 18th as the national day to remember its COVID-19 victims, and 2021 was the first anniversary. The date for the annual commemoration was not chosen randomly: it was the day that Italy – and the world – woke up to images of a convoy of military trucks full of coffins driving out of the city of Bergamo, where the cemeteries and crematoriums could no longer cope with the number of casualties.
Now, more than a year has passed since Attilio Focarete, Managing Director for Italy, Spain and Portugal at PerkinElmer, who, with his teams, witnessed this unprecedented firsthand in Italy where the European outbreak began.
We recently sat down with Attilio Focarete to discuss analytical needs and solutions for COVID-19.
Where were you when the news about the first cases of COVID-19 hit Italy? What was your reaction?
I vividly remember when the news broke out in Italy because few days earlier one of our service engineers was supporting the same company where the first case was identified. The first thought was about safety: we needed to make sure that our colleague was OK and secondly, we needed to think about how to best ensure safety for our colleagues and implement the new social-distancing guidelines.
I still remember the images from Bergamo with great emotion. They came out during an intense period, when we were focused on ensuring business continuity and meeting the new requirements issued by the government. Most importantly, we needed to learn how to work during this emergency all while motivating the whole team.
Could you give us examples on how PerkinElmer solutions helped Italy facing the pandemic and crisis situation?
PerkinElmer has been working on diagnostic solutions for many years. When the pandemic started, we put all our effort into providing solutions to help fight COVID-19.
PerkinElmer offers a suite of different COVID-19 testing solutions for prevention, surveillance, and monitoring like wastewater testing, monitoring of variants, serological test with dried blood spot samples, or testing saliva samples. This enables us to meet varying customer needs.
In terms of monitoring, we offer wastewater testing, which allows us to detect COVID-19 hotspots and provides an insight into the number of infected individuals in the area through the analysis of water in regional sewage treatment facilities.
Dried blood spot testing is generally used for newborn screening. We leveraged our knowledge in this field adapting to the COVID-19 testing needs by offering a dried blood spot-based COVID-19 serology test. With growing demand for testing, this test increased sample processing to up to 5,000 per day. The finger-prick sample collection device allows for both decentralized sample collection and high-throughput testing.
We have also released next generation sequencing solutions for monitoring mutations of COVID-19. We have worked on those solutions to simplify sample preparation, increase throughput, and offer multiple automation solutions based on each lab’s needs. Furthermore, we offer second-tier assays, which are easy to implement into the current RT-PCR workflow and can detect known mutations.
We also have lateral flow antigen tests, which work by taking a sample from the nose or back of the throat and testing that sample for the presence of antigens, the signature proteins of the virus.
Another solution that we have is food and environmental surface testing. We provide highly sensitive and specific assays to environmental testing facilities to ensure companies maintain a strong sanitation and disinfectant program.
We are able to span across a range of markets and meet varying customer needs. Especially labs that did not necessarily run viral tests before but were recommissioned to carry out COVID-19 testing, needed trusted support in their new analytical journey. We worked with them to find solutions that best fit their workflow and be ready to meet the demand for COVID-19 testing.
With the advancement of the vaccination campaign and a closer return to normality, we still hear about the need for testing. How do you see that we can play a role in enabling the safe transition to the new normal?
Our solutions have helped make progress in tracking the virus and we will continue to test for COVID-19 while the vaccination strategy is being rolled out across Italy and the rest of Europe.
However, some people will not have access to the vaccine for a long time. Gradually, everyday life has to open back up and we think our new rapid antigen test will play an important role in enabling life to move forward to the new normal.
For example, the lateral flow antigen test shows results visually in 15 to 30 minutes, with a similar indication as many pregnancy tests. It is helpful for mass testing because it is quick, easy, and does not require any other instruments. Clinical studies in symptomatic and asymptomatic populations, including individuals with low viral load, have shown sensitivity >97% amongst all samples. With this sensitivity, asymptotic individuals can be identified, and this will help significantly reduce transmission of the virus as people start re-entering daily life.
How do you see the role of science in supporting Italy’s food and tourism industry so in the future people from around the world can visit and experience this key element of Italian culture?
Italy is certainly a country that offers many beautiful things, from food to culture and it is well known to be a welcoming country.
Science and PerkinElmer will continue to contribute to finding the best solutions to allow the reopening of tourist accommodation facilities, museums, and restaurants enabling the maximum level of security for their guests. Our company is already committed to this and will continue to be in the future.
COVID-19 aside, can you tell me about a time when you helped a customer that you are particularly proud of? In general, can you explain which challenges your customers are facing and how you are trying to help them?
One experience I remember fondly is when we moved a whole laboratory with sensitive instrumentations from Milan to Liverpool (UK). It was rewarding to help this lab move and be operational until the very last minute and restart the operations smoothly few days later, miles away. Our motivation is always to find the most suitable solution for our customers and support them through their analytical journey.
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