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OHSU expands COVID-19 testing lab, processes 100,000th test

With capacity for 3,000 tests a day, new lab is the most robust in the Portland-metro area
A woman wearing a protective mask pushes a white cube in a research laboratory; a bearded man, also masked, talks on the phone in the background.
Kim Wilcox, who manages Point of Care Testing, Lab Information Systems and the Molecular Microbiology Lab, helps move the lab across campus. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

The new OHSU COVID-19 testing lab is housed in a 4,000 square-foot space, with a wall of windows and a floor plan that optimizes efficiency along each step of the testing process. The layout, new equipment and permanent staff have doubled the capacity of the lab since the move.

On Oct. 7, the OHSU COVID-19 testing lab processed its 100,000th COVID-19 test — a sobering milestone in the fight against the disease. Those first 100,000 tests were processed over the course of six months — the lab processed just over 100 tests a day in its first week and ramped up to more than a 1,000 per day before the move into the new space. The rapid launch of the first lab and growth in testing capacity speak to the dedication of the teams' dedication to meeting the health needs of Oregonians.

The capacity — 3,000 high-specificity tests a day — is the most robust in the Portland area and will be important to helping expand Oregon Health & Science University’s service to the community amid the COVID-19 pandemic. OHSU is the primary provider of low-barrier testing, which contributes to its mission to improve the health and well-being of Oregonians.

“Understanding the importance of this work is how we built and launched the original lab in two weeks!” said Guang Fan, M.D., Ph.D., associate medical director for OHSU laboratory medicine.

An individual in scrubs, booties and protective face mask reaches for a shelf in a research laboratory.
Laboratory technical assistant Elena Boucher unpacks equipment in the new extraction room. This room is a BSL-2+ lab, or a Biosafety Level 2 laboratory with BSL-3 practices and procedures in place. The model includes performing procedures that can cause infection from aerosols or splashes within a biological safety cabinet. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

A space of its own

The space, equipment and staff were all on loan for the opening of the original Molecular Microbiology Lab in March. Microscopes, extraction equipment, benches and stools — even gloves and PPE — everything was pieced together to create a lab. That lab launched with a one- to two-day turn-around of highly accurate tests.

Loaned equipment got the lab off the ground, but it didn’t create great efficiencies. This new space, and the new equipment, resolves those inefficiencies. Efficiencies are all around. Label codes that were entered manually are now scanned. Where technicians one-by-one transferred patient samples from swab tubes to RNA extraction plates one by one — now they transfer 90 samples at a time.

The plates are loaded into a high-throughput machine for automatic RNA extraction used for polymerase chain reaction screening for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19. Right outside the lab are the computers that analyze the samples and send data to providers on the hospital’s EPIC, or electronic health record, system. There are no more carts of equipment being pushed across campus several times a day — everything the lab needs is contained in 4,000 square feet.

A gloved hand holds a laboratory sample tray; most samples are pale yellow liquid, while one is amber.
The lab is ready to begin antibody testing reliable blood tests to detect past infection will be crucial in stopping COVID-19 pandemic. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Next up: Nasal swabs and antibody testing

The people, like the equipment, are no longer on loan. One by one, volunteers from OHSU’s Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute, Oregon National Primate Research Center, Integrated Genomics Laboratory and departments around campus have returned to their positions. The lab now has 15 permanent staff, and that makes a difference, according to Fan.

The lab, made possible by a gift from Nike leaders and Phil and Penny Knight, continues to expand the breadth of its testing. They are able to begin antibody testing, and are in the final stages of a combined Influenza A/Influenza B /COVID-19 nasal swab test. The nasal swab test will be ready by the beginning of the flu season — very soon.

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