COVID-19 testing with help of a robot

UC Berkeley uses robots to help detect coronavirus
Postdoctoral University of Berkeley fellows Jenny Hamilton and Enrique Lin Shiao with an automated liquid-handling robot (Hamilton STARlet) that will be used to analyze swabs from patients to diagnose COVID-19. Hamilton and Shiao volunteered to train to become CLIA certified to process patient samples. (Max & Jules Photography)

All around the country, municipalities are scrambling to set diagnostic facilities to test patients for the presence of coronavirus. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) are setting up a pop-up diagnostic lab that uses a liquid handling robot that can process more than 1,000 patient samples per day.

According to an article on the University of California at Berkeley website, the pop-up laboratory is the result of a collaboration between academic and corporate partners and is designed to provide desperately needed testing capacity in the Bay Area for those with COVID-19 symptoms.

The lab will run testing based on a process approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but with higher throughput than many commercial labs, some of which still must run samples manually, one at a time. The high-throughput machines, some sourced from campus research labs, can test more than 300 samples at once and provide the diagnostic result in less than four hours from receipt of patient swabs. Using robotics and a streamlined process, the IGI pop-up lab will soon perform 1,000 tests daily, with the ability to ramp up to 3,000 tests per day if necessary.

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“The UC Berkeley team is racing to address this critical public health situation by establishing a testing lab that will be immediately impactful in our community, while also generating data that contributes to understanding the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said Jennifer Doudna, professor of molecular and cell biology and of chemistry and IGI executive director. SARS-CoV-2 is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The IGI was able to partner with clinicians at University Health Services, UC Berkeley’s student health center, and both local and national companies to bring in the robotic and analytical equipment needed, establish a pipeline for clinical sample intake and processing, obtain the required regulatory approvals and train a crew of highly skilled scientists accustomed to conducting fundamental research to analyze patient swabs with a quick-turnaround goal of less than 24 hours.

While the testing lab will focus initially on samples from students and other members of the UC Berkeley community, the team is already coordinating with medical centers around the East Bay to eventually offer rapid turnaround to also meet their diagnostic needs.

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