Virginia Tech COVID-19 lab ready to ramp up testing for thousands of student samples
The university’s molecular diagnostics laboratory recently increased its COVID-19 testing capacity in preparation for the spring semester.
Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory, located at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, has processed more than 70,000 samples to support health districts across Virginia and the university community since its launch in April.
Starting next week, as students begin returning to campus for the spring semester, the lab will begin processing samples from approximately 7,400 students who are anticipated to move into on-campus housing. These student tests will be processed over a nine-day period.
The lab is also prepared to process hundreds of samples from students that are anticipated to come through the Schiffert Health Center over the next few weeks, as well as more than 500 weekly samples collected from Virginia Tech employees working in high-contact roles. The lab is also responsible for processing several thousand samples per week for the university’s rigorous surveillance testing program, and voluntary testing program available for students and employees.
“We are building on what we learned in the fall as we ramp up our testing for the spring, with emphasis on mandatory random prevalence testing of students and surveillance testing of high-contact employees,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in his state of the university address today.
In addition to processing samples for Virginia Tech’s community, the lab will continue to analyze tests collected by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH). In November, Virginia Tech was selected as one of the state’s three exclusive OneLab Network Tier 2 laboratories to help expand COVID-19 testing capacity across Virginia. Under the OneLab agreement, the university’s laboratory provides capacity to process up to 5,000 test samples per week. These samples are collected via VDH and come from community testing events, businesses, schools, and assisted living facilities across Virginia.
Since the fall semester, the lab has increased its maximum daily COVID-19 testing capacity from 1,200 to 1,600 total samples. This increased capacity is due to gained workflow efficiencies, investments in new equipment, and the ability to occasionally pool surveillance testing samples collected through Virginia Tech’s Schiffert Health Center.
Students are asked to quarantine for 10 days prior to returning to campus. Mandatory surveillance testing for high-contact employees resumed on Jan. 5, and voluntary testing for students and employees began last week.
The lab, which employs 25 skilled laboratory technicians, launched in April after the Food and Drug Administration gave the university permission to deploy its novel assay to analyze COVID-19 samples, in response to an emergency use authorization application.
The lab uses a tailor-made version of a real-time, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) protocol, which was designed by Virginia Tech scientists in March. This assay searches for three genetic sequences that are unique to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The lab’s assay will report positive on the various strains of the virus, including the new strain reported in the U.K. last month.
Test results are typically reported back to the VDH or Virginia Tech’s Schiffert Health Center within 24 to 48 hours.