Updated April 29, 2020 - 3:46 pm
Four Las Vegas Valley colleges and universities are working behind the scenes to help alleviate a statewide shortage of COVID-19 test kits.
UNLV, Touro University Nevada, College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College are producing batches of a clear liquid called viral transport medium (VTM) for the Southern Nevada Public Health Laboratory. The transport medium preserves samples collected via nasal swabs long enough to get them from collection sites to a lab for testing.
Plans also are being laid to manufacture the swabs used in the tests for the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which remain tough to come by in Nevada.
At UNLV, a 13-person volunteer team — led by life sciences professor Helen Wing — has made more than 2,000 vials of VTM, which plays a crucial role in preserving COVID-19 nasal swab samples, over the last couple of weeks. The public health lab uses the vials to fill out full test kits, which are then distributed to hospitals.
“What we’re trying to do is help the community,” Wing said, adding that it’s a way to ensure testing can occur. “We don’t see ourselves being the solution, but rather, the stopgap measure.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a new procedure March 21 for labs to create their own VTM, which has been in short supply amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
The shortage of the substance — made using a combination of chemicals, proteins and antibiotics — is problematic because it hampers the ability to provide COVID-19 testing, according to University of Utah Health.
After a medical provider does a nasal swab test on a patient, “That sample there needs to be maintained so the virus can be detected,” Wing said. VTM allows the virus to remain detectable for 72 hours, allowing time for a sample to be shipped to a lab for testing.
Distribution to hospitals began last week
The first batch of UNLV-produced VTM was distributed to hospitals last week, said Stephanie Bethel, a spokeswoman for the Southern Nevada Public Health District, which oversees the Southern Nevada public health lab. She expects the second batch of the solution will come in later this week.
“This project is an example of partner cooperation and commitment in addressing a need in our community and has provided the students involved with real-world experience in a public health emergency,” Bethel wrote in an email to the Review-Journal.
CSN and NSC didn’t respond to a Review-Journal request for information about their participation in the statewide project.
In Reno, the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory started putting together test kits in early March and was the first group in the state to do so.
At an April 16 news conference, Gov. Steve Sisolak said increasing COVID-19 testing volume is one of the state’s “immediate and long-term goals.”
But he said Nevada is far ahead of the game in comparison with other states thanks to the innovation of Mark Pandori, director of Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, and others.
The UNLV team that’s making VTM includes life sciences and chemistry professors, graduate students and technicians. It received its “recipe” from the public health lab.
Last week, UNLV’s team produced 1,400 vials — each of which will allow one person to be tested for COVID-19. This week, the team is aiming to fill 5,000 vials to fulfill a request from the public health lab.
Also at UNLV, the College of Engineering is producing nasal swabs using 3D printing, though that effort is still in its infancy. Wing said the goal is to eventually use those swabs with the VTM to create full test kits.
UNLV Medicine also has been conducting free curbside COVID-19 testing since March 23 and has tested more than 3,500 people. It recently expanded its testing capacity to 300 patients per day, with help from the Nevada National Guard.
Touro University mounts own effort
Touro University Nevada in Henderson started putting together COVID-19 test kits — a process that includes making VTM — about two weeks ago. For the first couple of weeks, efforts have focused largely on trying to get the needed components.
“The swabs in particular are difficult to come by,” said Karen Duus, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Touro. The university finally received an initial shipment of 3,500.
A team of Touro volunteers — including faculty members and more than 20 students — created the first 500 vials of VTM on Friday. The goal is to ultimately construct a total of 20,000 test kits.
Touro also has a couple of 3D printers, Duus said, noting that the school is exploring using them to make swabs in the future.
The University of Nevada, Reno, School of Medicine — home of the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory — started 3D-printing swabs two weeks ago and its goal is to soon make 1,000 per day, the university said in a news release. It’s also producing VTM.
The Carson City Library, which is closed to patrons, also is using its 3D printers to make nasal swabs, it said last week in a news release. The library has also used the printers to make personal protective equipment such as face shields.