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Virginia Tech to begin COVID-19 testing for local health departments

Scientists at Virginia Tech will begin in the next few days running COVID-19 tests in Roanoke and Blacksburg for local health districts.

“We like everyone else have been hearing for the past few months of the testing shortage in the country and a group of scientists here at Virginia Tech who do the same kind of work, came together and said well, heck, we have the equipment, we have the skills, we could do this. Why don’t we do this?” said Mike Friedlander, vice president of health sciences and technology.

One roadblock: Tech’s scientists run research labs and not diagnostic labs. For that, a lab needs what is called a CLIA license from the federal government. CLIA (pronounced like the name Lea but with a hard C) is short for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments.

Tech’s Schiffert Health Center does have a CLIA license for complex testing, but the student center doesn’t have the capacity to do widescale COVID-19 testing, Friedlander said.

A team led by Carla Finkielstein at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute in Blacksburg and Harald Sontheimer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke worked with Tech’s legal and emergency management teams to navigate the regulatory process.

And they worked with the Virginia Department of Health and the New River Valley, Roanoke and Alleghany health districts on the logistics.

Friedlander said they gained approval to begin the testing through the Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization Act.

He said labs in Blacksburg and Roanoke will each run 40 tests a day to start. Within a week, the labs are expected to run 160 tests a day, and two weeks later be up to 320 a day.

Friedlander said they have supplies to run several thousand tests, and they plan to purchase more machinery to get to 1,000 samples a day in a few months.