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A look inside the ‘frantic’ UW Virology Lab as coronavirus testing ramps up

A major hurdle in the coronavirus response across the nation has been the lack of available testing. While efforts are being made by both federal and local governments to increase testing capacity, there is still more progress to be made.

Here in Washington state, the main increase of testing capacity has come from the work of scientists at the University of Washington Medical Center’s Virology Lab.

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Currently, tests are still being prioritized for individuals showing severe symptoms, as well as police officers, firefighters, and first responders on the frontlines.

Rohit Shankar, a UW Medical Laboratory Scientist, joined KIRO Radio’s Thursday COVID-19 update to provide listeners a glimpse into the UW Virology testing lab.

“It’s been quite frantic. A lot of us scientists were working very long hours trying to get this stuff out,” Shankar said. “We started going live with our testing March 1 or so. Initially, there were maybe about four (or) five of us. We were probably testing close to 100 [samples], maybe 200, and we have been ramping up the testing quite a bit since then.”

Now, the lab has reached about 3,000 tests in the last 24 hours.

Shankar said there are a lot of people in the lab, with volunteers helping from other departments.

“When we’re trained, we are trained in the general sense,” he said. “But once we find a niche that we like, that’s what we do. And we specialize in that, and we get very good at what we do. In this instance, you’ll pulling somebody from either microbiology or hematology, and you’re bringing them and doing molecular virology.”

Though each scientist has their specialty, there is one commonality across all their training: quality control.

“These are … very dedicated, highly trained individuals who are being retrained,” Shankar said. “And that’s how we’re ramping up all this testing. There’s nobody meandering around. There’s a very purposeful walk when you’re heading to the bathroom, and you’re heading to lunch. There’s no lingering and chatting.”

In addition to an increased staff, there are boxes, instruments, gloves, masks, and supplies occupying the hallways. It’s a situation Shankar said is different from anything he’s seen in the laboratory before.

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“I went through the 2009 H1N1 influenza and, at that time, it wasn’t at this scale,” he said. “I worked one weekend on a Saturday when it finally hit us. We went from 30 samples to 150 samples, but we’re talking about 10, 20 times that now.”

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