When COVID-19 changed everything about daily life in the US, there were initially only a few reliable sources for testing. Meanwhile, a lab in Roanoke associated with Virginia Tech chose to pool its resources, and is now turning out results for the majority of the region, often in a day or less.
The COVID-19 lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC started up shortly after the pandemic hit, getting FDA permission to handle testing in April, taking about six weeks to start processing tests.
Michael Friedlander is the Institute's Executive Director, and Virginia Tech's Vice President for Health Sciences and Technology. He said the lab filled a real need in the region, having the tools that others lacked.
“It became apparent there was an opportunity for us, Virginia Tech, to contribute – not only to our university, but to the entire region, particularly in a time when there was a lot of things going on nationally,” Friedlander said. “For example, the CDC’s first test kit had a lot of problems, and wasn’t working. And there were shortages of certain chemicals that were needed. We felt there was something we could do to stand that up.”
Friedlander says the assay, or Fralin’s testing procedure, would not be beholden to some of the same troubles that testing first saw on a national level.
“So we started contacting colleagues literally all over the world to make sure we were getting necessary supplies,” Friedlander said. “And we got way ahead of the game early on, and began to collect and stockpile supplies.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases grew into the summer, Fralin hired a few more staff, relying partially on Go Virginia state grant dollars, as well graduate students volunteering their time, with extensive knowledge in molecular biology.
Lab Director and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Carla Finkielstein says an additional 18 lab technicians are lending their support.
“They decide that this is not something that we necessarily do from 8 to 5, and if we need to work extra hours to make it work, we will do it,” she said. “The volunteers were not only outstanding researchers in their areas of expertise, but they had a unique blend of solidarity, camaraderie, humanism, spontaneity and altruism that were much needed when all began.”
Finkielstein said the staff was needed to handle outbreaks as COVID cases have spiked in the Southwest. They’re processing test samples from not only Virginia Tech students and staff, but from seven other health districts in the region.
“Everybody’s very much into their station,” she said. “They know what they need to do, how to do it, how fast they can do it, but always truly mindful there’s a person behind each tube that needs to know their result as soon as possible.”
The lab’s samples are a roughly 50-50 split – between those coming from Virginia Tech’s Schieffert Health Center, and the majority of drive-in sites, and other the public testing sites in the area.
It might take up to a day for Fralin to get those samples, but Finkielstein says the work on their end – analysis, and putting it into a computer database, and reporting results, can take as little 8 hours, or up to 24 hours if there’s a large backlog of cases.
“By responding fast, we let the health department actually contact those potentially infected people, quarantine them, and make sure there are not any other spreads around.” he said. “I think that’s the important action here, at least until we have more mindful directions from the federal government on how to operate.”
Friedlander says that includes now mandatory random tests from Virginia Tech students, as well as daily tests from an area that’s seen a positivity rate in the double digits.
“Virginia Tech, from the beginning, has been working to serve the community beyond just the university, and this partnership – we hear it all the time talking to our colleagues from the Virginia Department of Health, and health districts, epidemiologists, etc,” he said. “This is something that has really benefited the community in Southwest Virginia.”
When the lab started up last spring, the staff was processing around 50 tests daily. Since July, with more staff and volunteers, they’ve picked up the pace, handling more than 1,200 samples a day.
Staff expects to surpass 50,000 total samples this week.
Meanwhile, the state announced Tuesday that Virginia Tech has been chosen as one of three labs to expand testing capacity across the Commonwealth.
The contract with One Lab Network will boost testing capacities to support efforts like outbreak investigations, community testing events, and testing in congregate settings. The Fralin lab could receive samples from any health district in the state and can process up to 600 samples a day. The state's goal is to perform 7,000 tests a day by the end of the year.
Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.