Doctor awarded OBE for Covid-19 testing

Doctor awarded OBE for Covid-19 testing

14 October 2020

THE massive upscaling in capacity for Northern Ireland Covid-19 testing has earned local medical professional, Dr Conall McCaughey, an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

However, the Annacloy family man insists he shares the honour with all his colleagues in the Regional Virus Laboratory (RVL) of Belfast Health and Social Care Trust where he is the clinical lead for Microbiology.

The 59 year-old was among some other unseen heroes — around a quarter of the new 119 honourees — who guided the province through the coronavirus crisis.

His award has been warmly welcomed by NHS colleagues who are delighted the ‘Cinderella’ of laboratory testing has rightly received recognition in the NHS effort.

Dr McCaughey and his team went from analysing around eight covid tests per day in February to 1,500 a day. There are currently around 6,000 tests being done in the province daily.

The consultant virologist explained: “We are a regional resource and do all the biological testing from all of the trusts in Northern Ireland and the GPs so it’s a very wide range of different tests for different patient groups that we do. 

“Regrettably, over the last 10 months that has been greatly overtaken by covid testing. I think our lab has done somewhere in the region of 150,000 Covid tests so far and it might even be more than that.”

Dr McCaughey’s lab was the third in the UK to start handling Covid tests on February 7, after London and Cardiff.

“It seems like a lifetime ago now,” admitted Dr McCaughey. “It was very much a manual testing with only one person doing it.

“We were doing things in days that would normally take weeks, and in weeks, that would normally take six months and we were the only lab here doing it.

“It has been stressful and also really quite affirming that the system can actually do big things quickly, and bigger things faster, than any of us that work in the system have ever seen or thought possible.”

Today, the RVL has been joined by other Covid test analysis centres serving Northern Ireland, using around five different test methodologies.

“We need to make sure we spread all our eggs in a variety of baskets, so to speak,” said Dr McCaughey. 

“One of the more amazing developments to me is that we are sending around 300 tests daily to a veterinary laboratory in Belfast. This still surprises me as I never thought that something like that would happen but the equipment the scientists have, their skills, their quality assurance is very similar to what we have in human health so in a way, it’s very logical.”

Dr McCaughey is the eldest of a family of 11 from Carryduff where his mother Veronica still lives, although his family also have close family links with Saul. He and his wife, Paula, have three daughters — business woman Melissa (30), doctor Katie (26 and 22 year-old teacher, Ellen. 

After attending St Joseph’s Primary School in Carryduff, he went to St Patrick’s Grammar School in Downpatrick.

Dr McCaughey studied medicine at Queen’s University, graduating in 1987 and specialising in pathology —  the diagnosis of disease in the body — since the early 1990s.

He praised the positive attitude of all involved the Covid testing this year, from biomedical scientists, to a small army of medical laboratory assistants and a new intake of young graduates, along with colleagues from other laboratories such the Regional Fertility Clinic, Regional Genetics Laboratory and the NI Blood Transfusion Service — who all banded together in an extraordinary alliance to analyse as many tests as possible.

Dr McCaughey said: “Some of what we have all achieved is still a blur to me. This honour is not for me, it’s recognition for a whole team and I’m so just pleased to receive this for them who have all worked so hard and often with laboratory specialities we often don’t get seen or recognised by the public.

“However, we can’t rest on our laurels as we realise that we are being thanked at a period where the biggest challenges lie ahead.”

Dr McCaughey hopes to attend his investiture later this year, or early in 2021.