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Randox's Dr Peter FitzGerald: Nothing will ever be the same again

Dr Peter FitzGerald speaks to John Mulgrew about developing and helping roll out millions of tests for Covid-19, a forever changed society, the high likelihood of a similar pandemic returning and when a vaccine for the virus could be found

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Peter FitzGerald. Pic Elaine Hill

Peter FitzGerald. Pic Elaine Hill

Peter FitzGerald. Pic Elaine Hill

Dr Peter FitzGerald’s expertise and opinion has probably never been taken as seriously as it has in the last few months.

Nothing will be the same again,” he tells Ulster Business. And, of course, he’s right.

His firm Randox – based in Antrim – has been on the front line of testing for Covid-19 right across the UK and beyond. And as a result, he’s hired hundreds of new staff and built a £30m testing lab to deal with additional deluge of work resulting from a global pandemic unlike anyone here has ever seen.

“I think there is a reasonable chance there will be more pandemics, with globalisation and increased population,” he told Ulster Business. “I have no idea how much it will come back again in second wave.

“We know we have the capacity as a company to respond, and respond well. I suspect the country is going to be better prepared… it’s hard to predict.”

The medical testing giant’s first involvement with the current coronavirus strain began back in January, before it became an increasingly concerning dinner conversation in homes across Northern Ireland.

“In late January, research called and were looking at doing a test,” Peter said. “We downloaded the genetic sequence of the virus and spent the next two weeks developing a test. We can do it very quickly, as we already had coronaviruses on chip.

“It was sent to Public Health England, which took a while to prove it. We then got a contract to test for the NHS… we were doing what we thought was for the national good.”

The initial deal didn’t include all of the UK, but Randox is now also testing Northern Ireland.

“We do the testing and we have different analysers that do the testing as well, which we sell to labs across the world.”

The virus has led to a new complete lab being built (in which Peter is pictured in) to deal with the additional testing. “We decided to accelerate the manufacturing in our Randox Science Park in Antrim,” he says.

As a result, it has hired around 200 staff in the space of six to eight weeks to deal with the surge.

“Because we had closely related strains of the virus, it was wasn’t so difficult to modify our tests to allow for slightly different variations… once we got the contract we soon realised that we didn’t have enough lab space to deal with the ramp up.

“We then decided to be 33,000 sq ft of new lab space, and it was needed in three weeks. We got that done – work was 24 hours a day, and seven days a week. It’s now operating well. That has been very important in the process.”

Randox had a workforce of around 1,450 worldwide before the coronavirus crisis began, but has since taken on around 280 additional staff for a range of roles, partly in ramping up demand for the additional testing.

“A lot were being taken on a temporary basis but many will be permanent. We are not sure of the final numbers, but well over 100.” Those roles include scientists, manufacturers, and engineers.

“Nothing will be the same again,” Peter says. “What it has done is heightened the importance of testing. People sometimes don’t know what we do here at Randox… but people now realise.

“In the end, it’s a good thing. We are advocates of testing. It identities disease before symptoms occur and can save lives in many occasions. It saves lives and saves costs. It fits in with what we have been trying to do for years… as far as we are concerned, it’s the silver lining.

“We have customers worldwide and other products kept going. We moved around 100 scientists into Covid-related things and then they have gone back to normal jobs as we bring in new people.

“Some of our R&D projects have changed, new systems and new analysers allow for efficient and accurate testing.”

Peter says that just a small element of the business has seen a decrease amid the crisis, while other areas around Covid-19 have grown.

“Only a small element of core business decreased. But our Covid and other genetic products have increased… overall sales will be up and by end of year normal business up as well.”

As a result of the latest expansion and growth across the business, generally speaking, Peter says the workforce looks set to climb to 1,650, with around 500-600 based at its main headquarters, just outside Antrim.

Peter’s also keen to reiterate the importance of Northern Ireland and its people to Randox. “This is our home base. It’s where we do our primary R&D and manufacturing. We also have a facility in Donegal.”

And, could all of this happen again soon, with a further outbreak or a similarly devastating strain or pandemic?

“(We are) more prepared and our technology is getting more accepted through bio chips. Early detection is a very important next stage. You don’t want people who have a cough or fever to think they have Covid all the time. That is where testing comes in and that differentiates.”

Peter says the next stop forward in a bid to address similar future incidents it also understanding how our immune systems work – better.

“The other major step forward in many ways is understanding the immune system better. How to better respond to infection. This will be very important.

“Some people are susceptible, and this could be genetic. (It’s about) working on certain genes in those who may have a bad attack. It will prepare humans better, the body’s defence, dealing with it as well.

“I have a deficiency in a particular gene which means I’m more susceptible to respiratory (conditions) but the spin-off of the gene means I’m less susceptible to certain cancers. This is the issue – it is so complex. One could be a strength and one moment, a weakness.”

And as for the formulation of a proven vaccine, Peter says: “I would say it would be well into next year.”

Ulster Business