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UNR Med Scientists Help To Manufacture COVID-19 Testing Supplies

Female scientist producing viral transport media.
Dana Reed/ UNR Med
Mary Burtnick, Ph.D., associate professor, microbiology and immunology department, makes Viral Transport Media for COVID-19 specimen collection kits in a biosafety cabinet.

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

According to health officials, increasing COVID-19 testing capacity is one benchmark needed to gradually reopen Nevada. Early on in the pandemic, shortages of testing kits were an issue for Dr. Mark Pandori who runs the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory. That’s why he reached out to other scientists in the community to help fill the gaps. 

KUNR’s Anh Gray talked to one of them to learn if it’s possible to continue to ramp up production of testing materials.

Anh Gray: Dr. David Aucoin is an associate professor and chair of the department of microbiology and immunology at University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine. Thank you for joining us. To start, please share how you got involved with helping to increase the state's Covid-19 testing capacity.

David Aucoin: As we found out early on during this pandemic, it was just really hard to find the necessary testing kits, to buy the kits or order the kits that the state health lab needs to actually run the tests. The first need turned out to be what's called viral transport media. When someone gets tested for COVID-19, a nasopharyngeal swab is used to sample up the nose and when that swab comes out, it goes into a test tube that contains viral transport media. And so that just kind of stabilizes the sample for up to three days of transportation to wherever it needs to go to get analyzed.

Gray: What's involved with making the media transport that’s a required component of the testing kits?

AuCoin: What we do is we make the test tubes, we make sure that they're completely sterile, so nothing is growing in them or anything like that. So we do some validation on those test tubes and then they're sent over to Dr. [Mark] Pandori at the state health lab. From there, Dr. Pandori knows where the needs are basically. He gets requests for these tubes from clinics, from possibly the Southern Nevada state health lab, some of the hospitals, so he'll distribute those to where they're needed.

Gray: Can you describe the quality control process involved in producing the transport media?

AuCoin:The recipe for this solution comes directly from the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], the CDC, and so they basically give you exact details on how to make the solution. We make it exactly like they want us to make it. We do some validation in the lab to make sure, for example, there's no bacterial contamination or no fungal contamination in the samples, and then they're actually sent over to Dr. Pandori and he will perform more tests on it.

Credit UNR Med photo by Dana Reed
Viral Transport Media tubes in cold storage.

Gray: Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many reports of a variety of shortages for testing and the ingredients needed to produce testing kits. Did you run into that problem?

AuCoin: I think at first, we were looking at all the components of the viral transport media. There were a few components that we didn't have. So for example, you put an antibiotic in the viral transport media and you put in an antifungal. If you imagine a swab coming out of a nose going into a test tube full of liquid, you can imagine what's on that swab. So basically you don't want bacteria growing, you don't want fungus growing. So we basically sent an email out to all of the UNR scientific, biological community. We got a massive response of, ‘yes, I have this, yes it's sterile, yes you can use it.’ That type of thing. And then we went ahead and ordered everything we needed for future production of this media as well. So we wanted to make some tubes really fast so they'd be available. And then think of the long term.

Gray: Governor Steve Sisolak says that reopening Nevada would be a gradual process based on guidance that he'll be receiving from medical advisors. He has mentioned that increasing testing capacity would be required to reopen. Would you be ready to produce more media transport for testing kits, if that will be needed?

AuCoin: We probably could do another 10,000 but we would just, we would just have to order more of the materials. So the materials needed to make the transport media seem to be available. So all those individual components, there's probably about five different things you have to add together to make the components, including a test tube as well. Those seem to be available when we go to our science reagent distributors; we're not too worried about that.

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Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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