Virginia Tech has been selected as one of three exclusive OneLab Network Tier 2 laboratories to expand COVID-19 testing capacity across Virginia, state officials announced today.

The deal strengthens an ongoing partnership between the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and Virginia Tech, which has built up capacity to provide COVID-19 test analysis for six VDH districts in Southwest Virginia since the university’s Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory was established in April.

Now, the Virginia Tech lab located at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke could receive samples from any health district in the state, depending on where the greatest need is.

“We have said all along that it will take everyone working together to control the spread of COVID-19, and the OneLab Network does that by bringing together Virginia’s strong public health system with our clinical hospital and university lab partners to provide priority testing across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Ralph Northam. “We have come a long way in increasing our COVID-19 testing capabilities over the past several months, and the new OneLab Network will help ensure public health has continued access to high-quality testing and prompt results.”

Under the new agreement, the university’s laboratory will provide capacity to process 600 tests received from Virginia Department of Health districts every day, seven days a week. Virginia Tech will be reimbursed for labor and materials at a rate of $100 per test for the next year, with a potential total reimbursement of $21.8 million over the next year.

“Developing a novel, accurate genetic test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and establishing a fully operational testing facility in a matter of weeks was a critical part of our plan to protect our campus and communities,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “As a Virginia land-grant university, we’re proud to have the opportunity to expand this vital service through our partnership with the commonwealth.”

Along with Virginia Tech, Sentara Healthcare and the University of Virginia were also issued OneLab Network Tier 2 Laboratory contracts, a collaborative initiative led by the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS).

“Public health laboratories serve as the backbone of a national network that responds quickly to novel diseases, natural disasters, foodborne outbreaks, and other public health emergencies; however, they are not designed to provide the levels of testing needed to control the spread of a disease such as COVID-19,” said Denise Toney, director of DCLS. “That’s what makes the OneLab Network such a unique and beneficial concept, where public health is working in collaboration with hospital and university partners to provide the level of testing needed to meet the public health challenges of today and tomorrow.”

The OneLab Network will immediately increase testing capabilities directly to support priority public health efforts, such as outbreak investigations, community testing events, and testing in congregate settings. The network aims to process 7,000 per day by the end of the year. DCLS serves as the primary, or Tier 1, laboratory in partnership with the Fairfax County Health Department Lab. 

Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, serves as the project’s principal investigator.

“Our researchers and staff have contributed their expertise, innovation, and passion to establish a particularly robust, reliable, and efficient testing operation from scratch,” Friedlander said. “The Commonwealth of Virginia’s investment in the OneLab Network represents an important expansion of the Commonwealth’s public testing capacity at a critical time. We are fortunate to have the chance to collaborate with such exceptional public health leaders, epidemiologists, and technology experts at the Virginia Department of Health and the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services to deliver a much-needed service to our community and region.” 

The Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory has processed 54,000 tests since the Food and Drug Administration gave the university permission to deploy its novel assay to analyze COVID-19 samples in April, in response to an Emergency Use Authorization application.

Virginia Tech students and employees account for just under half of the total tests processed. The remaining samples processed by the Virginia Tech laboratory have come from VDH districts, which collected samples from regional public schools, hundreds of local businesses, and congregate living facilities, including nursing homes.

The lab uses a tailor-made version of a real-time, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) protocol. Designed by Virginia Tech scientists in March, the precise assay searches for three genetic sequences that are unique to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Twenty skilled employees work in the lab, which can process more than 1,000 individual samples per day. Using an approved sample pooling method, the team can process up to 1,600 samples daily. Test results are typically reported back to the VDH health district or Virginia Tech’s Schiffert Health Center within 24 to 48 hours. 

The one-year contract can be renewed for up to five years. Virginia Tech will also continue to provide COVID-19 testing for students and employees.

Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 response has gained national recognition. In September, Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, praised the university’s ability to respond quickly and develop its own coronavirus testing facilities. 

“This is a university that understood the need, understood the gap, and was willing to self-sacrifice to bring additional testing solutions to the people of this community and this university campus. I am really proud of what they have done here,” Birx said.