Virginia Tech develops method to quicken COVID-19 testing results

Harald Sontheimer and Michael Friedlander discuss coronavirus testing at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Paige Bordwine (right), southwest regional epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health, walked through labs set up to do COVID-19 testing at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke with researchers Harald Sontheimer (left) and Carmen Munoz Ballester (center) on Tuesday, April 21. Bordwine also visited the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, in Blacksburg.

Carla Finkielstein (left), an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, is coordinating COVID-19 test development on the Blacksburg campus with Rich Helm, an associate professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who leads Core Services and the Genomics Sequencing Center at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. (Photo courtesy of Amy Morrow)

Virginia Tech scientists plan labs for COVID-19 testing at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke. Harald Sontheimer (left), a faculty member at the research institute and a professor of neuroscience in the College of Science, and Michael Friedlander (right), executive director at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, expect samples can be returned to health departments within 24 hours. Dipan Patel (second from left), Bhanu Tewari, Thomas Maynard, Robyn Umans, Joelle Martin and Carmen Muñoz Ballester have worked to finalize testing protocols while practicing social distancing at the Roanoke site.

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It’s a partnership that’s speeding up COVID-19 testing results in Virginia: At Virginia Tech, researchers have developed a new COVID-19 test and the facilities to process those tests quickly.

“We have a test that’s been working very well and think it’s going to be extremely accurate and also can be able to turn around in pretty good turn around times — in many cases by the end of the same day,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president of health sciences and technology. “So, we’re not going to be facing for our local region those long turnaround times that you’ve heard about at the state level and the national level.”

The testing doesn’t take long — only six hours, similar to many other laboratories. But the key to their speed of reporting the results is working directly with local health departments and controlling the logistics.

Dr. Harald Sontheimer helped develop the new COVID-19 test. He’s the director of the Center for Glial Biology in Health, Disease and Cancer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke, and executive director of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience in the College of Science.

According to Sontheimer, while most laboratories could have tests that take around six hours to complete, the slow down comes in getting the supplies to the health departments, and getting the health departments to ship those supplies back to the lab for testing.

At Virginia Tech, they’ve removed a lot of the variables that could slow things down.

“We’re providing everything but the swab to the health system. We’re basically providing a little tube that has transport medium for the virus already in there,” Sontheimer said. “The physician in the field or the nurse puts swab in there; that comes back to us. We’re cutting out transportation, the FedEx, the samples being stored somewhere, sometimes under less than optimal conditions.”

With the samples being delivered directly from the testing site to the university lab, they’re often able to get the results of swabs collected in the morning completed, and results reported back to the health system, the same day.

Virginia Tech’s system could also make the testing more reliable.

“If that sample makes it to us quickly, it doesn’t degrade. With the current backlog in the system, with other test providers, there is a fear that if the sample’s not stored properly, the viral genes could degrade and will not be properly detected anymore,” Sontheimer said.

Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District of the Virginia Department of Health, believes this cooperation will be critical in the battle against COVID-19. This is especially the case when it comes to testing health care workers and first responders, who are critical to a community.

“Having timely results, same-day results, really does inform our decision-making and our guidance about staff issues, about quarantine and isolation,” Bissell said. “We don’t want those people to put others at risk, including their colleagues or patients. Having this capability increases our ability to respond effectively in this pandemic right now.”

She added that this will also be vital in being able to test, trace and isolate cases in long-term care facilities, jails, mental health institutions and among homeless or shelter populations, where appropriate social distancing is challenging.

As Virginia Tech begins the testing program, researchers are running a couple hundred samples a day, but they are already working to increase the capacity and hope to be able to run at least 1,000 tests a day in the next two months.

Though this program is operational in just a few communities in Virginia — those closest to the university’s facilities — Friedlander believes their model could be used in other communities across the nation to build their own partnerships.

“If you can replicate this model — and it’s got obviously political, financial, logistical aspects to it — throughout the country, we could increase tremendously our overall ability to test,” Friedlander said. “There are untapped resources and talent available to do this.”

Michelle Murillo

Michelle Murillo has been a part of the WTOP family since 2014. She started her career in Central Florida before working in radio in New York City and Philadelphia.

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