Tech COVID-19 lab ready to test thousands of student samples

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Carla Finkielstein, an associate professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, led efforts to prepare thousands of kits to test Virginia Tech students for COVID-19 when they return to campus.

Starting this week, as students begin to return to campus for the fall semester, the testing capacity of 1,000 tests per day for Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 lab will play an increasingly important role to Virginia Tech students and employees in high-contact situations.

The lab was launched in April to support health districts in Southwest Virginia and has already processed more than 10,000 samples.

“This testing capacity has been a key factor in allowing Virginia Tech to plan for fall opening with some in-person instruction and with about one-quarter of our students occupying on-campus residences in Blacksburg,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a letter to the campus community. 

Carla Finkielstein, director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, said researchers have already assembled 10,000 collection units that will be used to collect samples to analyze for coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

“We are going to be super ready for the students,” Finkielstein said.

For those who may be a little reluctant to have a swab pushed into the far reaches of their sinuses, the Virginia Tech sample collection uses a less intrusive approach and collects the sample from the middle of the nose. The lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke generally delivers results within 24 hours.

“When this pandemic exploded and we were deciding what to do next, the university had two options,” said Finkielstein, who is also an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “One was to wait for someone to help us, and the other was to put our collective heads and resources together and do something to serve our community.

“Our university chose to be proactive,” Finkielstein said. “We want to help take care of our students. We are bringing them back, and we are testing them. On top of that, working closely with the health departments, we are able to provide test analysis for many other people in the communities around us.”

The university’s testing, tracing and case management plan calls for students living on campus to be tested for COVID-19 during the move-in time period from Aug. 14 to Aug. 23. Testing is not required for students living off campus, but off-campus students who are at-risk – those who believe or know they have been exposed to the virus, who have traveled to Blacksburg from a hot spot, or who have symptoms or other indications of exposure – should contact the Schiffert Health Center to determine whether they should be tested.

The Virginia Tech Schiffert Health Center COVID-19 lab launched on April 20 under a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-issued Emergency Use Authorization to help expand public health lab testing capacity in Southwest Virginia. This was a critical step in monitoring the spread of the virus in Virginia and slowing the pandemic.

“The need to provide a reliable, state-of-the-art molecular test analysis and to turn those results around quickly was a driving factor in the university’s decision to set up its own lab,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “It is an honor to be able to work with outstanding scientists as well as with dedicated leaders like Provost (Cyril) Clarke and President Sands to be able to deliver on Ut Prosim to the community when it really counts.”

“A person who is positive for the virus could potentially infect several other people with whom they interact while waiting for test results,” Friedlander said. “The precision and the efficiency of the university’s COVID-19 testing team are a necessary part of the overall public health response to the pandemic, something that I wish was emulated on a larger national scale.”

The work is in the spirit of Virginia Tech’s Community Wellness Commitment, which involves partners throughout the region working to protect people’s health and well-being.

“We’re very committed to make sure that everybody is working and studying in an environment where we have reduced risk, and we have provided for essential components of a well-thought-out public health mitigation strategy as much as is reasonably possible,” Friedlander said. “Accurate testing with rapid turnaround by the university is only one part. Everybody has to do their part, from wearing masks appropriately to social distancing to regular hand-washing.”