UTRGV lab dramatically ups coronavirus testing capacity

EDINBURG — In early April, UTRGV virologist Dr. John Thomas predicted he and the rest of the team of graduate students responsible for processing COVID-19 tests at the university would face an “avalanche” of samples.

He was right.

Today, a little over two months after Thomas and his team began vigorously processing samples, the lab can process between 1,000 and 1,500 tests a day compared to the 400 tests it processed the week after UTRGV opened drive-thru testing sites in early April. Thomas predicted in April that UTRGV would process most of the tests in the Rio Grande Valley; now it’s processing tests from across the state.

Operating at its current maximum capacity, the lab can process over 26 times the amount of samples it went through that first week.

“It’s been moving along pretty well,” Thomas said. “We’ve been cranking out tests like it’s going out of style.”

According to Thomas, part of Texas’ reopening plan stipulates that the state has the capacity to test 40,000 samples a day. He and his lab are part of the taskforce that makes that happen.

“I think they’ve got six labs that are part of this so far, three university labs and three commercial labs,” Thomas said. “We joined this task force about a month ago and our primary role has been supporting the big testing efforts across various nursing homes, meat processing places, first responders. I have a strong feeling that the Texas Teachers Faculty Association is going to require all teachers and all staff to be tested before they go back to school in the fall.”

Thomas says of those three university labs UTRGV has the largest capacity for testing. That’s important because the stream of test samples is torrential. They come in every night, on weekdays and on weekends and holidays, too.

“The state is sending out National Guard troops to help collect and package the samples, and then all the samples go to Austin and then they sort them and send them out on planes or trucks every night to the various testing labs that are part of this taskforce,” Thomas said. “This last week we had a pretty low amount of samples shipped in because of all the issues with the weather and then the rioting in Dallas and Houston. The state had to divert resources over there to keep citizenry safe, so this last week we had a few nights where we only got a few hundred samples.”

New equipment has helped UTRGV’s lab process samples, particularly the addition of an automated RNA extraction machine called the Thermo Fisher Kingfisher Flex. Essentially, the machine gets COVID-19 viral material off collection swabs so it can be tested.

“Previously we were doing it manually and it was taking us about two hours to extract about 90 samples,” Thomas said. “Now we can extract 270 samples in an hour, so it’s tripled our ability to extract and that’s one of the new bottlenecks.”

If the lab operates literally nonstop, capacity would go up to about 2,100 samples a day, but Thomas says he doesn’t think the lab will be able to do much else to increase that number.

“We’ve been weathering the storm OK, I don’t know how much we can do to up our capacity,” he said. “It’s only going to get worse. The state has plans to do a lot of testing.”

Despite that, Thomas remains confident. Increased automation should keep the lab running smoothly when graduate students working there go back to class in the fall. They’ve also added the ability to test for antibodies in the lab.

In addition, Thomas says that he’s seen positive rates remain somewhere between 2 and 3 percent.

“We’re seeing a higher volume of it because we’re testing more, but as a percentage, it really hasn’t increased over what we had seen previously.” he said. “For whatever reason, we’re just not seeing a lot of COVID-19 cases in Texas compared to the rest of the country. Maybe when we do the antibody testing on a large scale we’ll start to see that, we did do a couple samples this week and we had a couple samples that were people who had not been formally diagnosed with COVID that had antibodies in their system, which means at some point in the last few months they got infected…so we’ll probably find as we do the antibody testing that there are more people out there who have been infected than we do know, but overall it’s looking pretty good for Texas.”