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Inside A Seattle Lab Now Testing For Coronavirus

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The U.S. response to coronavirus has been hobbled by a lack of testing, so federal officials are now allowing certain laboratories to provide their own tests for the virus. NPR's Jon Hamilton visited one of those labs. It's in Seattle, at the center of the country's worst outbreak.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: It's been a busy week at the virology lab run by the University of Washington's medical school.

KEITH JEROME: We've already gone to three shifts. You know, people are going to be here basically all the time.

HAMILTON: Dr. Keith Jerome is the scientist in charge. He says the lab is processing about 100 coronavirus tests a day. But he's prepared to do more than a thousand a day immediately and could quickly increase that to 4,000. Jerome shows me a machine that extracts genetic material from specimens.

JEROME: That all happens robotically. You can see the arms in here moving back and forth. This robot is working on 96 specimens at a time. We have two of them. This is part of the magic for getting so many specimens through this laboratory.

HAMILTON: In another part of the lab is a room full of instruments that take bits of genetic material from a virus and make millions of copies. Jerome says that's critical for detecting an infection.

JEROME: Right now, this is our limiting factor. We've got a call out to the rest of the university - does anyone have any more that match these models? And if they do, can we borrow them?

HAMILTON: The lab's readiness is the result of months of planning. Jerome says he and other virologists started the process in January after hearing reports about the coronavirus outbreak in China.

JEROME: Our opinion was this is probably not going to be a problem. This is probably going to be a waste of our effort and some money, but we owe it to the people of our area to be prepared.

HAMILTON: So they developed a test and began using it in a research setting. Dr. Alex Greninger, the lab's assistant director, says tests of early samples found no infections. Then nearly a week ago, he says, one came back positive.

ALEX GRENINGER: I was on Friday at 4 p.m. And then Saturday morning, the FDA came out with new regulation that allowed us to perform testing.

HAMILTON: On Monday and Tuesday, the lab quietly began accepting specimens for clinical use and preparing for high-volume testing.

GRENINGER: It was intense.

HAMILTON: Late nights, lots of pressure - but Greninger says the hard part wasn't the testing procedure itself, but the logistics.

GRENINGER: How many swabs you're going to take from each patient, how you're going to handle sending results and samples to the state public health lab.

HAMILTON: Then yesterday, Jerome and Greninger held a press conference to announce that the lab was officially open for business. Jerome anticipates an avalanche of specimens, and he says that's a good thing.

JEROME: Access to testing is really the major tool that we have right now to fight this new coronavirus.

HAMILTON: But Jerome adds that testing is still limited to people who have symptoms like fever and a dry cough.

JEROME: My goal is that everyone who needs a test can get one, and that might be different from everyone who wants a test.

HAMILTON: Local doctors say the lab will make a huge difference.

SETH COHEN: It's a game-changer.

HAMILTON: Dr. Seth Cohen is an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington's Northwest Hospital.

COHEN: Previously, when we would send the tests to the CDC in Atlanta, it was taking between three and five days to get those tests back.

HAMILTON: Now results often come back the same day. Cohen says that means doctors and hospitals can focus resources on patients who are truly infected.

COHEN: We did not plan on being at the epicenter of one of the outbreaks in the United States, and we are preparing for the worst.

HAMILTON: Cohen says that preparation will be critical if the coronavirus continues to spread.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.