The UC Berkeley science building has converted into a COVID-19 test processing centre in a matter of days, with researchers hoping to do more than thousands of coronavirus testings per day in the East Bay.
The Innovative Genomics Institute founded by Jennifer Doudna who is a co-developer of gene-editing technology CRISPR houses robots that will be used to analyze samples from the medical centres and return the results with 12-24 hours. This initiative is set to begin analyzing samples from the Tang Center of UC Berkeley by the end of the week and the researchers are hoping to expand the effort to other clinics in the region.
Doudna said in a statement that they have set in place a robotic pipeline for processing thousands of coronavirus tests per day, with a pipeline to manage and returning it to clinicians. Setting up this process in a couple of weeks which otherwise would take months to years, is an extraordinary work that has been done before.
The initiative is launching as the reports abound of delays and shortages in the COVID-19 testing at every point across the United States. Berkeley doesn’t know the number of people who have been tested for novel coronavirus because labs were only asked to report positive results until a recent order.
The IGI will also use the same technique called RT-PCR which detects the viral RNA in test samples.
After the closure of labs in UC Berkeley and virus began spreading in the area, many researchers were hoping to apply their expertise to the local mitigation effort. Around 800 professionals, graduate students and community members volunteered to help out with this effort.
A postdoctoral researcher, Jenny Hamilton sad that around 30 individuals’ mostly postdoctoral researchers and PhD students are currently being trained for overseeing the process and to ‘babysit the robots’. The volunteers were selected for their skill set and experience dealing with unsafe materials.
One of the PhD students who asked not be named said that she was concerned this front-line work must be done by volunteers instead of the initiative paying the experienced and skilled researchers.
Although IGI will receive testing samples after their collection at the clinic, the initiative will also supply swabs and tubes need to conduct testing to Tang and other medical centres, aiming to increase their testing capacity.
Hamilton said that there is a shortage of critical items these days and scientists have spent the last week and seeking out products from the distributors around the globe. They asked healthcare professionals if they are willing to use slight different products and they were eager to accept any testing materials. They are working to secure the supply chain as everything is limiting in this crisis.
According to the IGI statement, revised guidelines from the health authorities and the emergency declaration by Gov. Gavin Newsom also permitted the approval for this initiative.
The Berkeley researchers are currently working with the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub and UC San Francisco on the sample processing work. The initiative was inspired by similar work that is being done at the University of Washington.
This effort is also getting underway as the Berkeley Lab reported its first employee who tested positive for COVID-19. The lab stressed cases are likely to occur across all workplaces and there is no indication that he acquired the virus while at work.
Hamilton said that there will be only a few workers at a given time in the IGI lab, practising social distancing all the time. She said that she is more concerned about someone catching the virus at Berkeley Bowl than she is about anyone being exposed from one of the samples.