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CRISPR pioneer Doudna opens COVID-19 testing lab

6 April 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1042

Academic and industry researchers led by Professor Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of CRISPR genome editing, have opened a new COVID-19 testing centre at University of California (UC) Berkeley. 

The team, which consists largely of volunteers, will be working in a converted 2500-square-foot scientific laboratory to run tests for hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area.

'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,' Doudna said.

The laboratory, located at the UC Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) where Professor Doudna is executive director, will process more than 1000 patient samples per day by using robotics and a streamlined process. If necessary, this could increase to 3000 patient samples. 

The UC Berkley team forms part of the US effor to combat the virus by taking up the World Health Organisation's imperative to test (see BioNews 1040). Three weeks ago, the US had only processed 42,000 tests over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer effort. As of last week, the total number of test results returned has risen to nearly 900,000.

'It's unbelievable to see how fast this is coming together and people writing software just overnight to put such a complicated pipeline in place and ensure that it's secure,' Professor Doudna told STAT News. 'It's really quite amazing.' 

According to BioSpace, the US remains behind in launching widespread testing for COVID-19 but now under the Emergency Use Authorisation more than a dozen companies' tests have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

One of these is the COVID-19 test developed by ThermoFisher, which Doudna's laboratory will be using. The test uses the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which has become the most common basis for coronavirus tests, which will in this case be automated, making the method faster than testing manually.

'The throughput numbers assume only one thing: that Thermo supplies and kits do not run out,' said IGI's scientific director Professor Fyodor Urnov. So far, they have acquired 10,000 kits.

The new laboratory aims to be certified under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) programme - the US federal regulator of diagnostic laboratories - by the end of this week. It will then begin testing, first working with the UC Berkeley Medical Centre to test 300 samples simultaneously.

CRISPR pioneer Doudna opens lab to run Covid-19 tests
STAT |  30 March 2020
CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna expects automated COVID-19 test lab to begin testing next week
BioSpace |  30 March 2020
Jennifer Doudna's Berkeley institute launches COVID-19 testing lab
San Fransisco Business Times |  30 March 2020
UC Berkeley scientists spin up a robotic COVID-19 testing lab
Berkley Research |  30 March 2020
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