Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Jacques Ravel and his fellow scientists and lab technicians at The University of Maryland School of Medicine, used robots to study the bacteria that lives in the human body in skins swabs, stool samples and throat swabs.
But now they’ve re-programmed their robots to analyze test samples from patients suspected of having COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Ravel, a professor of microbiology and immunology, and his team re-wrote the computer programs that control the robots, “to reconfigure the specific tasks that are needed to run the tests.”
It was a response to the need for quicker results from the tests.
In recent weeks, Maryland has expanded its ability to test for the coronavirus, adding drive-through testing stations around the state. And it awaits the use of the 500,000 test kits Gov. Larry Hogan bought from South Korea.
But it can take anywhere from 24 hours to two weeks to get the results back from one of those tests. And a lot can happen in that time.
The medical school recently received $2.5 million from state coffers to expand Ravel’s research lab into a testing lab by purchasing ten more robots.
They ran thousands of samples, Ravel says, to make sure the reprogrammed machine was accurately turning around the tests. And they worked with others at the university’s Department of Pathology and the University of Maryland Hospital to get the process validated and regulated. Once the process was approved, Ravel says, they found that their robots could produce multiple test results very quickly.
“[A] robot can do 800 [coronavirus tests] at once,” he said. “But then we start a new process every hour. So, every hour we process 800 samples.”
Ravel says with the additional robots he hopes to soon be able to run 20,000 tests a day.
That’s 40 times the number state labs can process in a day, says Charles Gischlar, a spokesman for the state health department. And it’s vastly more than the commercial labs and other medical labs that also are running tests.
But a lack of some supplies is creating a bottleneck in the lab process, Ravel says.
“While the kits for testing are becoming more widely available, the sample devises, the swabs and tubes, are becoming a problem,” he said. “There’s a big shortage of those.”
Ravel points out if they hope to process 20,000 tests a day, testing facilities need to sample 20,000 people and you need 20,000 swabs and tubes a day to do that.
Gischlar from the state health department agrees that swabs are scarce.
That means many hospitals and labs are “fighting for the same supplies,” Ravel says, which is driving up the cost.