Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 analysis lab reached a milestone in March, breaking more than 100,000 samples analyzed since the lab opened less than a year ago.

“It was an emotional moment to see the 100,000th sample arrive,” said Carla Finkielstein, director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “We’ve come so far since we first started. This achievement is beyond our wildest dreams, but we really can’t spend time reflecting on it.  For now, we are not really conscious of what we’ve achieved — we just keep moving samples. We are on autopilot, reporting the results of our sample testing as fast as we can to public health officials to help contain the virus.”

The 100,000th sample arrived on March 11. As of Friday, April 2, Virginia Tech has processed 113,031 samples. The lab opened on April 20, 2020, and received permission from the Food and Drug Administration to carry out testing while its Emergency Use Authorization was under consideration in order to help expand public health lab testing capacity in Southwest Virginia.

“We will have a much larger celebration once the pandemic is over,” said Finkielstein, an associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences. “The team members are honored for the opportunity to serve their community and look forward to a not-so-distant future when there are zero samples to process.”

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors this month bestowed Finkielstein with its highest honor for faculty — the Ut Prosim Scholar Award – for her service to humanity and her work to improve COVID-19 testing efficiency and effectiveness in support of Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Health.

“Dozens of dedicated, caring people contributed to this honor — it is always more than just one individual effort,” said Finkielstein, who is also affiliated with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “I am grateful to work with people who cared and stepped forward when they were needed. It is an honor to see the teamwork making contributions to people’s lives.”

The Ut Prosim Award recognizes the application of scholarship in “truly extraordinary service to humanity.”

“Dr. Finkielstein took a bold and innovative series of steps early in the pandemic to position the Commonwealth to rapidly stand up and sustain a state-of-the-art COVID-19 testing operation for the citizens of the southwest region of our state, including the Virginia Tech community at a time of great need,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Finkielstein shifted her attention from her laboratory’s cancer research and enlisted “a small army of volunteers” at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute to work day and night with her to develop a reliable qRT-PCR-based assay that could be validated, be submitted to the FDA for consideration for Emergency Use Authorization, and avoid the flawed tests kits and potential reagent supply chain challenges on the horizon for the nation, Friedlander said.

“What stands out about Dr. Finkielstein is that she is an academic researcher with no background in medical or commercial diagnostic testing, who was told by many experts that the technical and regulatory hurdles would be insurmountable, and yet succeeded beyond expectations,” Friedlander said. “The operation that she is now leading and managing in Roanoke with 25 lab personnel — all of whom she meticulously trained — continues to provide a critical service to the regional health care districts and the university, out-performing some major commercial operations and delivering results on time daily.”

On Nov. 10, 2020, state officials announced Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 lab was selected as one of three exclusive OneLab Network Tier 2 laboratories to expand virus testing capacity across Virginia. By being included in the OneLab Network, Virginia Tech can be called upon to receive samples from any health district in the state, depending on the greatest need.

Since opening, the Molecular Diagnostics Lab has analyzed thousands of Virginia Tech Virginia Tech students and employees who were tested for the COVID-19 virus through the university’s testing centers. That’s in addition to testing done for regional health districts since April 20, 2020. 

Carla Finkielstein, director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and 25 lab personnel work improve COVID-19 testing efficiency in support of Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Health. Photo by Clayton Metz/Virginia Tech

Carla Finkielstein
Carla Finkielstein, director of the Virginia Tech Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, and 25 lab personnel work to improve COVID-19 testing efficiency in support of Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Health. Photo by Clayton Metz/Virginia Tech