Delaware State Univ.’s new COVID-19 testing lab gets ‘results within two hours’

New Castle County used $5.5 million of its federal coronavirus relief money to fund the laboratory at the university’s northern campus.

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Audrey Janga works with COVID-19 test samples as medical director Dr. Harris Curtis observes. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Audrey Janga works with COVID-19 test samples as medical director Dr. Harris Curtis observes. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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Audrey Janga hunched over a set of COVID-19 samples that were sitting within a negative pressure hood.

She clicked on each test tube containing the testee’s saliva, using a device that looks like a scanner customers use in the checkout line at Home Depot, to enter each into a database kept on a MacBook.

Janga was working with fellow Delaware State University science grad Edward Addison at the university’s new genomics lab on Kirkwood Highway near Prices Corner. They performed about six steps that included heating the samples and running them through a whirring centrifuge before they determined whether they were positive or negative.

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“Once a sample gets here, we can get results within two hours,’’ Addison said.

Edward Addison prepares a solution used to process tests. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

That’s far faster than the current wait time of up to three days for testing done in Delaware that’s evaluated in out-of-state labs. Quicker turnaround time is one of the primary goals for the lab at the Dover-based university’s northern campus.

Funded with $5.5 million of New Castle County’s coronavirus relief money, the lab started operating in late December.

It’s currently processing only Delaware State student-athletes’ results but within days will start processing tests of other students and faculty, and then samples taken throughout Delaware and the region. More staff are being hired, and more equipment is on order to help the lab expand capacity.

The lab is at Delaware State’s building on Kirkwood Highway near Prices Corner. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Dr. Harris Curtis, the lab’s medical director, said that’s just the start.

“This gives us the ability to test large quantities of people. We hope to be able to do up to 5,000 tests per day,’’ Curtis told WHYY News. “The more people we test the more, we find out who has been infected, we can quarantine that person.”

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Saving money is another aim. The lab hopes to get the cost of testing down from more than $100 using nasal or saliva swabs to less than $15 per sample because it uses the saliva direct test that involves simply spitting into a test tube.

Officials also say that, post-COVID, the lab can be ready to conduct testing for future health crises, which helped spur County Executive Matt Meyer and the County Council to allocate the money for the project.

Students will assist the full-time staff to gain hands-on, real-world experience in genomics, said university president Tony Allen.

“This partnership truly represents a win/win for the county and DSU while bringing much-needed jobs to the region,’’ Allen said.

Added Derrick Scott, the professor overseeing the lab: “Knowledge is power. This lab will empower the people of Delaware to quickly know their status and respond in ways that will limit the spread of this disease.”

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