Robotic COVID-19 Testing Lab Begins Trials at UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley scientists are beginning trials on a robotic testing apparatus that can detect more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients every day.
Brad Bergan

Doctors across the U.S. are scrambling to catch up on coronavirus diagnoses as the rapidly-growing spike of infections hastens the tally of COVID-19 cases. To assist, scientists are creating a robotic diagnostic lab capable of processing more than 1,000 patients every day, according to UC Berkeley's blog.


Robotic COVID-19 testing

Pursued by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley's Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), the pop-up laboratory is a joint effort of a unique team of corporate partners and volunteers. Together, they plan to provide sorely-needed testing capacity to people with symptoms of COVID-19 in the Bay Area, and also provide assistance to public health officials map the spread of the epidemic.

"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," said Jennifer Doudna, IGI executive director and professor of molecular and cell biology and chemistry, according to the UC Berkeley blog.

SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific term for the coronavirus that leads to COVID-19.

This was made possible via emergency modification of state and federal regulations and California's declared state of emergency, which allowed the IGI to partner with clinicians at University Health Services, the student health center at UC Berkeley, and both local and national companies to bring robotic and analytical equipment to lay the groundwork for a safe and robust pipeline for intake and processing, acquire regulatory approvals and train an intrepid crew of scientists who are veterans of on-the-ground research.

This includes analyzing patient swabs with a rapid turnaround of less than 24 hours.

Scientists against the coronavirus pandemic

Comprising the group of scientists are more than 50 volunteers from UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley, and local data management companies. Together they are testing their first viral samples of the novel coronavirus this week — hoping that by next week they'll gain certification under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program.

The testing lab will initially focus on samples from students and the broader UC Berkeley community, but the team is already working with medical centers around the East Bay with hopes of offering a quick turnaround that meets rapidly-evolving needs.

"We mobilized a team of talented academic scientists, partnered with experts from companies and pulled together, in a matter of a few days, a group that is operating like a biotech company. It is a remarkable story," said Doudna, according to the UC Berkeley blog, who is also an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In a time of great need, scientists in and out of universities, private corporate forces, and federal institutions are rushing to find new effective means of treating the COVID-19 coronavirus. It's interesting to note that — along the way — robotics may see new advanced applications in the fight to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

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