ASU aiming to produce thousands of COVID-19 test kits, process tests




A researcher at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute in Phoenix examines a slide. Screenshot via ASU Biodesign Institute | Vimeo

Arizona State University said it is ready to help state efforts to mitigate the viral spread of COVID-19 by conducting 400 tests a day and producing thousands of coronavirus test kits using automation and robots. 

The Biodesign Institute at ASU said the high-tech automated platform can currently test 400 samples a day, but can grow to test 1,200 samples a day at full capacity. 

The university said it will mainly focus on testing critical workforce personnel, including health care workers, first responders and infrastructure personnel.

“Because of what they do, they are forced to work together – they have no other choice but to do that,” Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute said. “And if any one of them were to be infected, it could take out a whole team, and these are highly trained personnel in key jobs.”

LaBaer said the Biodesign Institute’s production facility also has the capability of producing 2,000 nose and throat swab test kits a day, as long as they can get hold of the needed supplies. 

The Biodesign Institute already produced more than 2,000 swab test kits and is about to produce another 10,000 kits in the next few weeks to distribute to first-responder networks, he said. 

ASU said it is currently reaching out to several municipalities, first-responder networks and the Arizona business community, but has not yet finalized any partnerships. 

LaBaer said testing will also be available through ASU’s Health Center for university students who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 

The Biodesign Institute’s efforts were boosted by a $2 million donation in emergency grants from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust on Tuesday, which LaBaer said will help hire the needed personnel to keep the machines running 24 hours a day. 

The donation will also help ASU manufacture personal protective equipment, including face shields, through its 3D printing rapid-response services.

Because of the scale of the initiative, the Biodesign Institute asked for student volunteers on March 20. More than 500 volunteered within a matter of hours. LaBaer said the volunteers include people who specialize and work in labs and others who are making phone calls and tracking down supplies. 

“We’ve had an extraordinary outpouring of people willing to volunteer,” LaBaer said. “It’s been heartwarming.”

Lack of testing kits and personal protective equipment are issues health care providers are facing nationwide and in Arizona. 

The Arizona Department of Health Services urged doctors in a letter last week to discourage COVID-19 testing because of lack of testing supplies, and to expect a shortage of protective personal equipment. LaBaer hopes the university and the Biodesign Institute can help alleviate the critical lack of tests in Arizona. 

“Everything we’re doing, we’re doing in conjunction with the state,” LaBaer said. “They’re well aware of what we’re doing and we stand ready to help in any way that we can.”

Arizona now has 1,413 cases of COVID-19 with 29 deaths, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

Nationally, there are 190,740 cases in the United States with 4,127 deaths according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.