STANTION – A partnership between New Castle County and Delaware State University (DSU) will create a new $5 million “next-generation” genomics lab to process COVID-19 tests, leading to faster turnaround times for results and increasing the university’s research profile.
The funding, from the county’s allocation from the federal CARES Act, will pay for the equipment and fit-out of the 5,600-square-foot lab at DSU’s Wilmington campus off Kirkwood Highway near Newport as well as the hiring of up to 10 diagnostic scientists to perform the tests. After the initial year, DSU will pick up the operating costs of the lab, which will be the largest such diagnostic lab in the state aside from the Delaware Department of Public Health’s lab.
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer said the partnership was borne out of the shared desire to increase testing availability, lower its cost and provide timely, reliable results, while bringing new expertise into Delaware.
“A diagnostic facility of this kind enables us to join in the fight, most notably in support of our neighbors and community members in the state of Delaware,” said Tony Allen, DSU president.
DSU has been a leader in testing of students and faculty who returned to its campuses, including its flagship school in Dover, administering 30,000 tests this semester, Allen said. It has a positivity rate of just 0.3%, due in part to the college’s steadfast testing that helps limit the spread of the virus.
Officials said that they hope to have the lab operating in four to six weeks – important because CARES Act funds must be spent before Dec. 31 or they will be forfeited back to the federal government.
Dr. Derrick Scott, assistant professor of biological sciences at DSU who will oversee the program, said that the lab could eventually complete up to 1,000 tests a day. Scott said that the lab would use a Rt-PRC saliva-based laboratory diagnostic test developed by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health, which would allow testers to skip one of the more time-intensive steps of other tests.
“We’re able to go straight from saliva to do the actual testing, which will highly decrease costs. A lot of the cost involved is the reagents that you need to do the RNA extraction,” he said.
Officials estimate that these tests could be completed for $4 or less, compared to the $90 to $150 that the county is paying for its tests from Curative and $50 a test DSU is paying for its tests through the help of donor groups.
“There’s obviously going to be, over time, a huge cost-saving,” Meyer said, noting the lower test price may rise slightly when factoring in supporting software and more.
The public would also benefit from quicker results, as currently the county’s and university’s tests are sent to labs in California, Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Washington, D.C., to be processed. Allen said the university typically gets its results in 30 to 36 hours, while the county’s tests take a little longer. Scott said that same-day results from the lab would be expected, although late-arriving tests may be processed the next day.
“This will be much more of an immediate reaction for us, which will help the broader community,” Allen said.
Even after the COVID crisis passes, DSU intends to use the lab to expand its research offerings for undergraduate and graduate students alike, Allen said.
“There’s a moment right now that we’re dealing with that is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime, but we also know that being able to combat infectious diseases and having the research capacity and clinical capacity to do that in a regular fashion is very important,” he added.
The resources will help build opportunities in the state while also helping to protect the health of the community at large, Meyer said.
“We’ll have a lab that if there’s any future threat like this that comes, we have the machinery and the know-how to immediately take that scientific knowledge from China or from wherever it comes in the world, and put it to use to keep our community safe,” he said.
By Jacob Owens