×

New UMass lab will bring more, better, faster, cheaper virus tests 



Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2020

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts will open a new lab in its Institute for Applied Life Sciences to conduct its own COVID-19 testing, which will counter supply shortages and save the university millions of dollars. 

UMass researchers already develop COVID-19 testing using a combination of facilities at other locations, such as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. But the new facility, set to open by the end of the month, will allow the university to process thousands of tests on campus each week and better respond to potential outbreaks, according to Peter Reinhart, founding director Institute for Applied Life Sciences.

UMass policy currently states that all students must be tested twice a week. But with the production of the lab, the university is ramping up its abilities to perform adaptive testing. In other words, if certain populations on campus — possibly residents of a particular dorm or members of a sports team — experience higher incidents of COVID-19, the university will have more resources to increase the frequency of testing of these groups, even among students who are completely asymptomatic, but still may be infected and contagious.

These testing capabilities are critical in keeping COVID-19 cases low, according to Reinhart.

“A combination of social distancing, PPE and frequent testing at least once or twice a week is probably the best recipe that we have right now to keep our student population safe,” Reinhart said.

Nearly all external COVID-19 testing suppliers also have supply chain issues, Reinhard said. By producing the tests internally, the university can continue to process thousands of tests per week and increase testing if needed.

The internal production and processing also saves the university millions of dollars that it otherwise would have needed to pay outside companies, Reinhart said. Savings could amount to $10 million per semester, he said, though the exact number will depend on how many students need to be tested and how often they are tested.

The lab uses RT-PCR testing — the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing in terms of accuracy, Reinhart said. 

The University of Massachusetts has recorded 10 positive cases so far, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, and has performed 20,752 tests overall. This low incidence of positive COVID-19 tests is “a fantastic position to be in,” Reinhart said, though he noted that the semester is still in its early days.

But, he said, the university is in “a good starting position,” and “frequent and and readily available testing is one of the major ingredients” keeping COVID-19 rates at Massachusetts universities lower than frequencies recorded at universities in other states.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.