Hospital News

UPMC develops COVID-19 virus test

This story appeared in the Cumberland Times News on March 14. The author is Lindsay Renner-Wood.

PITTSBURGH — UPMC officials announced during a Saturday morning press conference that they’ve developed their own test for diagnosing COVID-19, as well as community surveillance measures they hope will help prevent significant spread within the regions they serve.

Dr. Alan Wells, the medical director of UPMC Clinical Laboratories, said the test will first be administered to “select symptomatic patients” as they work to expand testing capacity. That increased capacity, he said, is “essential” to helping physicians and researchers better understand and mitigate the effects of the rapidly spreading respiratory illness.

Wells said that they anticipate the new test will allow them to diagnose potential cases within 24 hours, rather than waiting “days or weeks” for returned results from local community health institutions.

“Developing this test for a never-before-seen virus in the midst of a pandemic and a heavy flu season was a tremendous challenge and accomplishment, even for a renowned academic center with a long history of such test developments,” Wells said.

UPMC will be able to test 20 patients a day at first, Wells said, and hope to be able to see as many as 100 patients a day for testing within a week. That ability fills “a critical need not filled by state or commercial labs” currently, Wells said.

Dr. Donald Yealy, chair of emergency medicine for UPMC, spoke next, first addressing the country’s current testing capabilities, which he called “delayed and limited.” That creates anxiety in the general public and makes it harder to create a plan for response if testing is hampered.

“It’s hard to craft an effective plan when we don’t know really who has the infection and who doesn’t,” Yealy said. A rapid diagnosis, he said, can help ease patient anxieties.

Beginning Tuesday, Yealy said, patients will be directed to a Pittsburgh facility not open to the general public. Patients must have a physician referral and appointment. Specimens will either be tested by UPMC labs or “public health authorities,” Yealy said, reiterating the patient qualifications.

Patients who come for testing will be in an isolated room, and staff will be fully dressed in protective gear, Yealy said. Waiting and collection rooms are both negative pressure, which Yealy explained means air does not exit until it’s flown through a high-efficiency filter to remove pathogens.

Once back, patients will be tested with a nasal swab that is then sent off for testing. Tests are anticipated to have a 24-hour turnaround.

“At the end of the day our goal is to serve you well and to help limit this infection as fast as possible,” Yealy said, noting how tirelessly staff worked on developing the test.

Dr. John Williams, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, called it “a terrific achievement” and a significant one for patients in terms of their care.

In addition to the newly developed clinical test, UPMC Children’s Hospital researchers have come up with another way of detecting community transmissions, he said. They’ve developed a test to screen samples from patients who present symptoms to see if any test positive for the virus.

The research team has tested more than 300 “de-identified” samples from facilities within UPMC’s network, Williams said, from patients who presented potential red-flag symptoms. So far, none have tested positive for the virus.

However, Williams emphasized, that doesn’t mean the community should slack on taking precautions to prevent its spread.

“The world is small. People travel all the time,” Williams said, adding that the data suggests the virus is “not yet widely circulating in our region.”

This type of testing, Williams emphasized, cannot diagnose an individual. Samples were tested in a way that’s intended for mass screening, he explained, and not individual diagnosis.

“Even though it can’t diagnose an individual with COVID-19, it can alert public health authorities early when the virus is beginning to spread in the community so that certain interventions we’ve already started … can be ramped up or extended for longer periods,” Williams said. “… The goal here is prevention before it’s widely circulating, not mitigation after it’s already established a foothold in our city.”

Asked whether they wish they’d started early, Wells said he did, and that the staff had considered it “well before March 3rd,” but federal and state authorities said at the time they anticipated having the testing situation under control. The requisite emergency authorization to take their own measures wasn’t in place at the time, he explained.

Still, he said, he felt positively about their chances of success.

“Fortunately I do not think we’ve missed the boat by coming on board now instead of two weeks ago,” Wells said.

Yealy said additional collection sites will be added “region by region” based on demand, Western Maryland included. Right now, the only such site is located in Pittsburgh.

Per a release, the hospital system will add “additional specimen collection facilities in Harrisburg, Erie, Williamsport and Altoona at an as-yet undetermined date after gaining experience with the South Side facility and after UPMC’s testing capacity increases. “

Wells noted the personal effects as well: Three of his former trainees are “on lockdown” in China currently, and he’s been in communication with them over the last few weeks as the situation has progressed. He also has colleagues in Europe who’ve been affected, he said.

“I think the word that (describes how) this has been is surreal,” Wells said.