Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 Lab has processed more than 10,000 samples to support health districts in Southwest Virginia since its launch in April. 

Starting this week, as students begin to return to campus for the fall semester, the lab’s capacity of 1,000 tests per day will play an increasingly important role to Virginia Tech students and employees in high-contact roles. 

“This testing capacity has been a key factor in allowing Virginia Tech to plan for fall opening with some in-person instruction and with about one-quarter of our students occupying on-campus residences in Blacksburg,” Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said in a letter today to the campus community.  

Carla Finkielstein, director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, said researchers have already assembled 10,000 collection units that will be used to collect samples to analyze for coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

“We are going to be super ready for the students,” Finkielstein said.

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For people who may be a little reluctant to have a swab pushed into the far reaches of their sinuses, the Virginia Tech sample collection uses a less intrusive approach and collects the sample from the middle of the nose. The lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute in Roanoke generally delivers results within 24 hours.

“When this pandemic exploded and we were verge of deciding what to do next, the university had two options,” said Finkielstein, who is also an associate professor of biological sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “One was to wait for someone to help us, and the other one was to put our collective heads and resources together and do something to serve our community. Our university chose to be proactive. We want to help take care of our students. We are bringing them back, and we are testing them. On top of that, working closely with the health departments, we are able to provide test analysis for many other people in the communities around us.”

The university’s testing, tracing, and case management plan calls for students living on campus to be tested for COVID-19 during the move-in time period from Aug. 14 to Aug. 23. Testing is not required for students living off campus, but off-campus students who are at-risk – those who believe or know they have been exposed to the virus, traveled to Blacksburg from a hot spot, or have symptoms or other indications of exposure – should contact Schiffert Health Center to determine whether they should be tested. 

The Virginia Tech Schiffert Health Center COVID-19 lab launched on April 20 under a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-issued Emergency Use Authorization to help expand public health lab testing capacity in Southwest Virginia — a critical step to monitor the spread of the virus in Virginia and slow the pandemic.

“The need to provide a reliable, state-of-the-art molecular test analysis and to turn those results around quickly was a driving factor in the university’s decision to set up its own lab,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “It is an honor to be able to work with outstanding scientists as well as with dedicated leaders like Provost (Cyril) Clarke and President Sands to be able to deliver on Ut Prosim to the community when it really counts.”

Friedlander said close collaboration with the state health department and efforts of students, staff, and faculty, including Harald Sontheimer, a professor at the research institute and the Virginia Tech College of Science, has been essential in efforts to protect community health.

“A person who is positive for the virus could potentially infect several other people with whom they interact while waiting for test results,” Friedlander said. “The precision and the efficiency of the university’s COVID-19 testing team are a necessary part of the overall public health response to the pandemic — something that I wish was emulated on a larger national scale.” 

The work is in the spirit of Virginia Tech’s Community Wellness Commitment, which involves partners throughout the region working to protect people’s health and well-being.

“We're very committed to make sure that everybody is working and studying in an environment where we have reduced risk, and we have provided for essential components of a well-thought-out public health mitigation strategy as much as is reasonably possible,” Friedlander said. “Accurate testing with rapid turn-around by the university is only one part — everybody has to do their part, from wearing masks appropriately to social distancing to regular hand-washing.”

Currently the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory scientists are exploring a new approach of using pooled sample analysis, currently under evaluation by the FDA, which would further increase its testing capacity.

Most of the samples tested so far have come from Schiffert Health Center, the New River Valley and Roanoke/Alleghany health districts, with others from the Central Virginia, Cumberland Plateau, Mount Rogers, and West Piedmont health districts.

Related Content: Town hall with President Tim Sands addresses testing, fall semester plans

Scientists Thomas Maynard (left) and Carla Finkielstein explain one of five liquid handlers used to process samples in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Scientists at work
Scientists Thomas Maynard (left) and Carla Finkielstein explain one of five liquid handlers used to process samples in the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.