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UC Santa Cruz Lab Increases COVID-19 Testing For Santa Cruz County

UC Santa Cruz.
The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab started testing on May 10.

Adequate COVID-19 testing is seen as one of the key requirements needed to contain the coronavirus outbreak. This week, California health officials announced how much testing local counties need to be doing in order to qualify to re-open their communities.

In Santa Cruz County, they should be testing just over 400 people a day. Right now, on average, the county says it’s doing about 167 tests per day.  But one newly created lab at UC Santa Cruz is hoping to help the county reach that goal. 

KAZU's Michelle Loxton spoke to Michael Stone, he’s a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC. He’s a lead scientist and co-founder of a COVID-19 lab, officially known as a CLIA lab, which started testing on May 10. 

Credit UC Santa Cruz
Michael Stone is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSC. He is the lead scientist and co-founder of the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab.

Michelle Loxton (ML): The UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab started doing COVID-19 testing very recently. What has it been like creating a lab like this?

Michael Stone (MS): It's been quite a whirlwind of activity. Together with the rest of our community here in Santa Cruz and the nation and the world really. A group of scientists, together with high level administration, came together rapidly to begin to brainstorm how we could leverage our scientific capabilities to help the Santa Cruz community as well as, of course, our campus community. I think the simplest way to describe it is that it's been a highly productive time and it has been a whirlwind and a rapid learning curve for all of us involved. 

ML: And where do you get your specimens from?

MS: So currently we have two established partners. One is our local UC Santa Cruz student health clinic and they are specifically responsible for taking care of our student populations. That's one of our partners. And then a second partner that we have in place currently is called Santa Cruz Community Health. That's a local health provider that supports the well-being of our Santa Cruz community. 

ML: And I believe automation is a big part of being able to increase your testing capacity. Could you tell me about that?

Credit UC Santa Cruz.
Stone says automation is an important part of increasing COVID-19 testing. He says robots can pipette large numbers of samples in a speedy manner.

MS: Absolutely. So a big part of what we would call the wet lab aspect of running this type of diagnostic test is truly just moving liquids from place to place. And typically, this is done manually by a graduate student. She or he might be manually pipetting a solution from one tube into another as part of an experimental protocol. The distinction with a CLIA diagnostic test like we're conducting in the molecular diagnostic lab here at UC Santa Cruz is that the task is very repetitive. And so in order to get at scale, there's essentially two really important components that automation provides. One is the ability to pipette large numbers of samples in a speedy manner. What I like to say is that the pipets don't get... or the robots rather don't get tired. And so that's a very important component to reaching the scale that we have targeted, trying to remove the potential for human error. And the second part is actually a matter of precision, which is that the automation and the liquid handling robots that we have in place, they are highly engineered pieces of equipment that pipette very small volumes of liquid with a high degree of precision, which in turn relates to the integrity of the testing process itself.  

ML: And have you had any challenges with supplies. Like reagents for example?

MS: So supply chain issues are a major concern. And in particular because at UC Santa Cruz we were not a pre-existing CLIA Lab framework, we were very cognizant that any effort  from the very start that we were putting in place, we did not want to interfere with supply chain potential issues with established testing laboratories. And so the FDA, as you may be aware, set new guidelines and standards. And so they put into place the ability of laboratories like ourselves to validate new reagents. And so we made a concerted effort to reach out to various vendors that we work with to ask them whether there were comparable reagents that were not going to impact supply chain. And that has worked out very well for us. That being said, issues like nasal swab accessibility have definitely come up and remain a source of challenge and something that we actively pursue. But so far at the scales that we've been testing, it has not negatively impacted our ability to do tests. 

ML: And tell me about who you have working in the lab. Do you have students who are perhaps taking time away from their studies at the moment to help with testing?

MS: We do indeed. The large majority of our workforce are graduate Ph.D. level students and we also have a few research scientists, more senior level. They already have gone through their Ph.D. training and have more extensive laboratory experience. And yes, as you put it, they have been taken away from their normal work due to laboratory closures. And each of these people had to go through very extensive specialized training in order to work in this CLIA Lab framework, which is very different than our typical biomedical research type lab environment. But yeah, we are very grateful to our students who have stepped up to meet this challenge. 

ML: And tell me about your lab’s testing capacity. I know that it's early days but what does the future hold for you?

MS: We've placed a lot of focus on the integrity of our testing process. And so we are interested in scaling, but not at the extent or not to the degree that it would compromise any integrity. So it's a balancing act there in terms of the testing capacity. The automation that we have put in place dramatically augments that capacity. So we're currently at a situation where we, with our workforce and the automation technology we have in place, where we can comfortably do 184 tests per day with a 24 hour turnaround. I would mention that in a surge situation where we would want to press a little harder, extend the day we could double that in principle. And so that would take it up to 368. And those are very precise numbers, of course, because there are certain numbers of spots that's on the robots themselves and the plates that go into them. So that's where those numbers are coming from. So we're in that sort of 200 to 400 ballpark right now. And I know that there's a lot of interest in increasing that capacity. And that may or may not happen depending on the need of our community and the testing need. 

ML: How long is your lab able to operate and continue to stay open as the need for COVID-19 testing continues?

MS: What we do know is that our ability to do the testing in this CLIA laboratory framework, which means diag... actual diagnostic testing is directly tied to the regulatory framework within which we're working, which relates to the state of emergency. So provided that that does not change, then the answer is indefinitely. And so our plan... what we're planning for is a phasing from the graduate student workforce to a more permanent staffing, because we also understand that our graduate students, as you mentioned earlier, they did not come to UC Santa Cruz to work in a clinical diagnostic setting, though they are learning quite a lot as we all are in the process of doing so. But there will come a time that's probably not too far out, we are thinking through the summer and transitioning into fall, depending on how the shelter-in-place situation evolves, of transitioning from a grad student focused workforce in all likelihood to a dedicated, properly staffed where we're not sort of time sharing. 

That was Michael Stone. He’s a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC Santa Cruz. He is a lead scientist and co-founder of the UCSC Molecular Diagnostic Lab, which is doing COVID-19 testing. UCSC is one of the many organizations that supports KAZU.

From 2019 to 2021 Michelle Loxton worked at KAZU as an All Things Considered host and reporter. During that time she reported on a variety of topics from the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid epidemic and local elections. Loxton was part of the news team that won a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award for the continued coverage of the four major wildfires that engulfed California’s Central Coast in 2020.