Virginia Tech prepares to test thousands of students and staff for coronavirus at dedicated Roanoke lab

The Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Tech is prepared to run 1,000 tests a day

ROANOKE, VA. – As Virginia Tech students and staff return to Blacksburg for fall classes, researchers in Roanoke are preparing to process thousands of their coronavirus tests as quickly as possible.

Working with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, they’ve assembled a dedicated lab for testing Hokies. And they say their method of testing, using a new test developed in Roanoke, gets results back faster and is less affected by supply-chain issues than other options.

Health leaders say rapid and large-scale testing is key to preventing the spread of the virus.

But Fralin Biomedical Research Institute executive director Dr. Michael Friedlander said commercial labs are running a one to two-week backlog.

“We decided we would set up a test that would enable us to turn results around within 24 hours and we’re generally doing that, we’re getting results back by the next day, sometimes the same day,” Friedlander said.

Dr. Friedlander led the charge to find a way to run a lot of tests in not a lot of time.

Dr. Carla Finkielstein is the director of the Institute’s Molecular Diagnostics Lab and took that charge with a running start. She and her team designed a better way to test for coronavirus than what others are using.

“It doesn’t rely on the presence of one particular molecule of the virus, we test the presence of several molecules, so when we call something positive we are absolutely sure that it’s positive,” Finkielstein said.

She said the institute’s test is more sensitive and more specific than other tests, but what’s really crucial is how quickly they can turn the tests around. Finkielstein said her staff are set to work around the clock to process the tests and are fortunate to have the equipment to do it.

“We can even load samples at night, and get the results in the middle of the night and we’re still processing samples, it’s a non-stop process, that’s why we can do things, that’s why our turnaround is so fast,” Finkielstein said.

The institute is prepared to run 1,000 tests a day and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said it’s a driving factor in their plan to re-open this fall.

The lab has already processed 10,000 tests for the surrounding communities, so they’re ready for the challenge.

“It’s the only way right now to really mitigate, get a hold on and really contain this, because if we don’t the numbers will simply explode,” Friedlander said.

Teams at the institute continue working on even more ways of testing. The FDA is currently reviewing other methods using pooled sample analysis, which if approved could add even more capacity.

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