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Washington State University to begin human testing for COVID‑19

Woman in mask and gloves handling test tube kit.
A WSU laboratory technician extracts RNA from a testing sample.

PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University will start processing hundreds of daily tests on human samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease known as COVID-19. The expanded testing at WSU begins this week and is part of the overall effort to safely re-open the economy in the state and the region.

WSU’s new testing ability, designated WSU One Health Diagnostics, builds on the work of its Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory which regularly handles tests for animal pathogens and has experience in handling high volumes. WSU will run as many as 2,000 COVID-19 tests per day for the eastern part of the state.

“WSU is proud to be part of the effort to increase the testing capacity for the state of Washington, and in particular for the eastern part of the state,” said Guy Palmer, professor of pathology and infectious diseases. “Testing is critical to curbing the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. It lets the individual know if they need to self-isolate, and as a community, it helps us judge if current public health measures are adequate.”

WSU will process diagnostic samples collected at multiple sites in the state. Range Health, the WSU-affiliated nonprofit that runs a mobile medical unit serving rural areas, plans to start collecting samples from people in the region’s smaller towns and communities.

The university will be working in collaboration with the state Department of Health and a private laboratory, Incyte Diagnostics, which will handle pre- and post-test analysis. Based in Spokane, Incyte Diagnostics is a full service anatomic and clinical pathology laboratory with facilities throughout the state. It has provided diagnostic services to hospitals, physicians and patients throughout the region for over 65 years.

“WSU and Incyte Diagnostics were able to develop a partnership that allows for COVID testing to be done rapidly and locally,” said Patty Sipes, CEO of Incyte Diagnostics. “This partnership accelerates testing capacity and allows us to participate in a rapid response model necessary to support the communities we serve.”

In addition to testing the diagnostic samples, WSU is also able to process antibody tests which can show whether someone has had the virus in the past. However, a positive antibody test does not guarantee that someone is immune to contracting COVID-19 again. These tests can help epidemiologists understand how widely the virus is being transmitted in the community by people without symptoms, and evaluate if current health and safety measures are adequate.

WSU already has experience running large volumes of tests, also called high throughput testing, through its animal diagnostic laboratory in the College of Veterinary Medicine. The Diagnostic Lab has ramped up capacity in the past to handle surges of testing during animal disease outbreaks, such as avian influenza and bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE.

This will be the first time, however, that the university will conduct tests on human samples. The lab has already conducted some COVID-19 tests for companion animals with no positive tests to date.

Palmer said the human tests at One Health Diagnostics will be handled separately from the testing for animal pathogens, which will continue at its usual levels. The two types of samples will be processed separately in different physical areas and follow a different set of protocols.

WSU has been certified to handle human sample testing through a process called Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment, and its testing proficiency has been evaluated by the Washington Department of Health.

Media contact:

Phil Weiler, University Marketing & Communications, 509-335-4742, phil.weiler@wsu.edu

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