Animal Laboratories Being Used to Process COVID-19 Tests in an Effort to Speed Up Results

  • There are at least 15 veterinary laboratories in the United States helping process COVID-19 tests.
  • The hope is these labs will help ease the backlog of tests and speed up the results.
  • However, these labs are facing the same supply shortages as other labs across the country.
  • Seven states have banded together to purchase more than 3 million coronavirus antigen tests.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, the United States is performing more than 700,000 COVID-19 tests per day.

That increasing number of tests has created a backlog at the laboratories processing the exams.

As a result, many people are still waiting for more than a week to get their results.

Experts say there’s a huge push to get every eligible lab on board to help ease this congestion.

“Every clinical lab that I know that has the capability to do the tests has been pressed into service,” said Patrick E. T. Godbey, MD, president of the College of American Pathologists.

“Hospital labs are particularly on the front lines, private labs, and academic labs because they have the expertise to do these types of tests,” he told Healthline.

However, it’s still not enough.

So, health officials are looking elsewhere.

Veterinary labs stepping up

In an interview with CNN last month, Adm. Brett Giroir, MD, the assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, revealed that a handful of labs that usually focus on animal health are pitching in to help with COVID-19 tests.

“We have several veterinary labs… that have gotten their CLIA certification so they can do human testing,” Giroir said.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, regulates human diagnostic laboratory testing through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program.

Agency officials told Healthline that currently 15 veterinary labs have received CLIA certification and it is expediting its review of other applications.

The officials said this public health emergency is the first time it has had this volume of veterinary labs becoming CLIA certified.

There aren’t exact statistics available for the number of human COVID-19 tests these animal labs are processing, but in a June article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, several of the labs reported processing thousands of tests per week.

However, some experts note that the animal labs will likely face the same uphill battle as other labs: not enough supplies.

“I do think that in an emergency situation, using veterinary labs can be one way to increase capacity,” said Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland.

“However, I think the issue is more about reagents and actually having lab space to process it,” he told Healthline. “So it may be that veterinary labs may be able to only marginally improve the situation because they still face the same reagent shortages that everybody is facing.”

Supply chain issues

“We have taken extraordinary measures to ramp up COVID-19 testing,” Godbey said. “We could run more COVID tests. In many of our labs, testing capacity has not been reached.”

In a survey done by his organization, Godbey said about two-thirds of pathologists said they have the equipment and expertise to do the testing, but what they need is the chemicals and supplies required to run the tests.

“The problem is we can’t run a machine to capacity because we can’t get the supplies,” he explained. “We can’t get enough of the basic chemicals, the reagents, the kits to fully utilize the machines we have.”

Godbey said his organization urged White House officials to address those critical supply shortages during a July 30 conference call.

Then last week, the organization sent a letter to Congress, telling representatives that getting enough swabs, pipettes, transport media, chemical reagents, and test kits would go a long way toward getting quicker turnaround times.

The next moves

Frustrated by the delays, some states are looking to new, more rapid tests, despite concerns over their accuracy.

Governors in seven states have banded together to buy 3.5 million rapid coronavirus antigen tests.

Their goal? To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and continue to safely reopen their economies.

Antigen tests detect certain protein fragments that are part of the novel coronavirus. The results of a nasal or throat swab are available within minutes.

“I think we have to move away from PCR (polymerase chain reaction)-based testing and toward antigen testing,” Adalja said. “This type of testing is quicker, can be performed outside a lab, and is cheaper. “

“Although antigen testing may be less sensitive, it may be more predictive of who actually is infectious versus who is just PCR positive and may no longer be infectious or not infectious,” he added.

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