COVID-19 unites the scientific community on innovating the way out of the pandemic

Nevada State Public Health Lab, UNR Med scientists teaming to manufacture supplies to facilitate faster COVID-19 testing

A scientist at the NSPHL manufactures specimen collection kits for COVID-19 testing.

The NSPHL, which serves the entire state of Nevada as a first line of defense against a public health threat, has the ability on most days to manufacture an average of 1,000 of specimen collection kits for COVID-19 testing. UNR Med photo by Brin Reynolds. Click the "Download Press Packet" button at the bottom of the page for additional photos. 

As the U.S. continues to face a dire shortage of COVID-19 collection (testing) kits, scientists from the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) and the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med), are teaming to facilitate faster COVID-19 testing in the state by manufacturing their own COVID-19 collection kits.

In early March, the NSPHL was the first public health lab in the nation to construct collection kits, which are used to collect a specimen from a patient through nasal swabbing. The manufacturing process involves creating 3D printed testing swabs and producing viral transport media (VTM) to complete the testing kit. The process has helped Nevada to achieve above the national average of tests per 100,000 residents (April 9).  

As COVID-19 infections in the U.S. surpass 662,000 and deaths exceed 28,000 and growing, testing supplies have become scarce nationwide. In Nevada, COVID-19 infections surpass 3,500 and deaths exceed 100.

NSPHL addresses shortage of collection kits by manufacturing its own COVID-19 specimen collection kits   

Mark Pandori, Ph.D., director of the NSPHL explains that since there has been no, or an insufficient supply of COVID-19 collection kits or sourcing nationally, the lab is collaborating with scientists at UNR Med's Department of Microbiology and Immunology to create and manufacture its own supplies.  

The process was made possible after Pandori, who was an advisor on Nevada Governor Sisolak's COVID-19 Task Force, helped to establish its own system for the State of Nevada, not the FDA, to evaluate whether products associated with testing are safe and effective, which significantly expanded and accelerated COVID-19 testing across the state.  

Established in 1909, the NSPHL, which serves the entire state of Nevada as a first line of defense against a public health threat, has the ability on most days to manufacture an average of 1,000 of specimen collection kits for COVID-19 testing. A quality control process is in place to ensure high quality, accurate testing. The specimen collection kits are distributed to health districts and hospitals that request them. In turn, the NSPHL performs the COVID-19 tests received from the health districts and clinicians focusing on testing symptomatic people and people in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases.  

"We're collaborating with David AuCoin, Ph.D., chair, department of microbiology and immunology and his team to innovate our way out of the supply shortage," said Pandori. "Our job is to provide COVID-19 testing and to help the state remain vigilant and prepared to respond to infectious diseases, including COVID-19. We're not just standing around waiting for equipment to show up. Instead, we're being proactive and innovative about creating our own manufactured supplies, now."   NSPHL conducts COVID-19 tests seven days a week and has a continuous supply of COVID-19 tests available. The lab reports patients tested data on the NSPHL website: med.unr.edu/nsphl.  

UNR Med Department of Microbiology and Immunology bolsters collection kit ingredients by making 3D printed swabs and viral transport media (VTM)   

UNR Med's Department of Microbiology and Immunology is supplying the NSPHL with the key components needed for the lab to complete the manufacture and distribution of the collection kits statewide.  

The shortage of collection kit components includes nasal swabs used to collect samples and the sterile solution needed to transport the swabs, known as viral transport media (VTM). The swabs have to be long and thin enough to reach the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat, behind the nose. They must be made of synthetic fiber and cannot be made of wood or contain calcium alginate, a substance typically used for swab tips in wound care, as that can kill the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

After swabbing patients, the swabs go into VTM, a liquid-filled vial containing a salt solution that protects and stabilizes the virus while it is en route to the lab, ensuring that it is still testable.  

Under the direction of Dr. AuCoin the department of microbiology and immunology at UNR Med is ramping up production to create these vital materials to help meet the increased COVID-19 testing demand.  

"We began 3D printing swabs on April 15. Our goal is to produce 1,000 swabs per day," said Vincent Lombardi, Ph.D., associate professor, department of microbiology and immunology at UNR Med.  

UNR Med is partnering with the Makerspace at the University of Nevada, Reno Innevation Center to utilize Formlabs 3D printers to print swabs. Each printer has the capacity to print around 260 swabs in 24 hours. UNR Med purchased one printer and three others are being commissioned through partnerships with the Innevation Center, the Carson City Library and the Nevada Department Emergency Management.  

UNR Med Department of Microbiology and Immunology Research Associate Dana Reed has been leading micro's efforts to produce VTM that is needed to transport patient samples. Each test kit uses about 3ml (about one tablespoon) of VTM. In one day of production, working at full capacity with 16 people, the micro team is able to produce nearly 5,000 vials of VTM, Reed said.  

The swabs will be individually packaged and sterilized, and then sent along with the VTM, to the NSPHL to complete the specimen collection kits, which are then distributed to health districts and hospitals that request them.  

"This is a great example of what the UNR Med research community can do to help in this crisis and our team is enthusiastic about doing it," said AuCoin. Our lab team is working with tremendous energy and speed to help the NSPHL rise to the current COVID-19 challenge."  

Donations from University research labs in biochemistry, biology, pharmacology, physiology, nutrition, chemical and materials engineering, and the Proteomics Center; and TMCC, Sierra Nevada College, and DxDiscovery, Inc., a private company on campus, made the efforts possible.

Pandori says more needs to be done to increase testing capacity in Nevada, that will help with decisions about how to normalize our lives once we come out of the pandemic, "Our lab team at the NSPHL continues to work each day to increase testing accuracy, speed and capacity. We're proud to be collaborating with a diverse team on campus and across the state, to solve one of the world's biggest public health problems. Testing, and how we can gather more information about the virus, will continue to be critical for informing key considerations for our future health, our economy and how we live our lives. We're all in this together," said Pandori.


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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.