VT Creates COVID-19 Test

Apr 23, 2020

Scientists at Virginia Tech have created a new test to identify COVID-19 The FDA granted an emergency approval this week allowing testing to begin immediately. 

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.
Credit Amy Morrow

First responders, health care workers and people in confined settings populations will be first to get the new COVID 19 tests, developed by a team of scientists at Virginia Tech. “We have a test that's been working very well. We think it's going be a extremely accurate," says Biomedical Research Director Mike Friedlander.  He spearheaded the COVID-19 testing initiative.

“We’ll be able to turn it around, in many cases, by the end of the same day,” Friedlander says. “We'll be starting out and hope to be handling a very quickly, a couple hundred samples each day and we'll be able to ramp up over a period of time to at least a thousand samples per day.”


Teams of scientists here have been working around the clock for months to develop the test.   “It’s a very sensitive test,” says Carla Finkielstein. She and her team used something called reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, which makes it easier to determine if Coronavirus genes are present. " The key here is that you go from a few molecules  in the virus, that are present in the sample to amplification of millions of them in just a few hours. So that's what really gave us this high throughput capacity and sensitivity."

 Finkielstein says there have been no false negatives identified so far. Testing for the public will be done by local and area health departments and analyzed by Virginia Tech Labs. Blood draws will be taken at area health districts in southwestern Virginia and the samples will be sent to university labs for analysis.

“So, people do not come to Virginia tech to get tested." say Freidlander. "The health districts are handling that, but we will be getting those samples from the health districts and processing them here at Virginia tech at the two sites in Roanoke and Blacksburg, and then reporting those results back.”

Key to the creation of the new COVID-19 test initiative was the student health center at Virginia Tech, which had the proper certifications already in place. And a university full of scientists who not only had time on their hands, but also the tools and knowledge to accomplish the task.

“I think other states could benefit and even other regions in our state, from looking at the partnership that was developed here. If you could replicate this model and it's got obviously political, financial, and logistical aspects to it throughout the country; I don't know a number, but we can increase tremendously, our overall ability to test.”  

***Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech