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UW School of Medicine ready to test 1,000 samples per day for coronavirus

Dr. Keith Jerome, left, and Dr. Alex Greninger, right, both of the UW School of Medicine, talk about their new coronavirus test and its capabilities. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

Just four days after academic labs were given permission from the Food and Drug Administration to conduct testing, the University of Washington School of Medicine rolled out a new test that the university says can analyze 1,000 samples for coronavirus per day — and hopes to increase this number soon.

Dr. Keith Jerome, who directs the UW School of Medicine Molecular Virology Laboratory and the UW Medicine Virology Laboratory, said at a press conference Wednesday that the lab has tested 200 specimens for coronavirus since Monday. He and his colleagues anticipate reaching up to 1,500 specimens per day by the end of the week.

“Things are happening in a matter of — sometimes hours, always days — that would normally take weeks or months,” Jerome said. “This is really a success story, and it is going to change the trajectory of this infection.”

Ten people in Washington have died of coronavirus as of Wednesday, six of them connected to a nursing home in Kirkland. There are currently 29 other confirmed cases in the state.

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Right now, the UW School of Medicine and the state lab in Shoreline are the only labs conducting coronavirus testing in the Puget Sound area.

UW School of Medicine research scientists are working around the clock — 24 hours per day — testing specimens for coronavirus. They hope to soon have an 8-hour turnaround for results.

“It was approximately 48 hours from the time the green light was given until we were up testing,” Jerome said. “And I really need to call out just the heroic work that our staff has done, … we had people here with us til 2 a.m. last night who came in at 7 again this morning to get these tests out to people.”

Jerome said that 1,000 tests per day is enough to meet the region’s current demand, though he noted that it can be hard to predict what will be needed in the near future with an epidemic that’s growing this rapidly. Local cases are prioritized, though the UW is also testing samples from around the nation.

“Seattle and the West Coast are the front lines for this virus,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratories. “So we are [doing] what we can do to protect the rest of the United States.”

The UW began preemptively working on developing a test back when coronavirus was only found in China. Although Jerome and his colleagues did not at that point believe the illness would ever reach U.S. soil, they wanted to be prepared.

Without the herd immunity provided by a vaccine (or by a population that has already been infected), and without a tried-and-true method to treat the disease, Jerome said testing is the best way to fight this brand-new virus.

“Testing is the main weapon we have against this virus right now,” he said. “We can understand who has the virus, who doesn’t, the people who are affected can be isolated. … Until we have a vaccine, or until we have clearly effective and widely available therapeutics, this is our major tool.”

The test analyzes nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal swabs taken from the back of the nose and back of the mouth near the throat. For a detailed visual of what the testing process looks like, click here.

Currently, a person needs to be referred by a doctor to receive a coronavirus test. A physician will determine if a test is needed based on the severity of symptoms and whether or not the person has traveled to an affected area or been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.

“Much of the purpose for that is to make sure that the testing available does go to those who need it,” Jerome said. “I know everyone would like to know, ‘Do I have the virus right now?’ But there simply isn’t the capacity to do that kind of testing.”

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While the testing capability represents a triumph against coronavirus, Jerome cautioned that there is still a long road ahead.

“We are not winning now against this virus,” Jerome said. “We’ve had a small victory now that we’ve had this testing available, but it’s likely that the local epidemic is growing. Our work is just beginning.”

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