UK HealthCare fighting COVID-19 behind the scenes

By Allison Perry, UK Now

UK Healthcare, COVID-19
Molecular microbiologist Ben Cobb vortexes samples of COVID-19 to prepare them for the next step of testing. UK Photo | Mark Cornelison

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Tucked away on the 6th floor of the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital, UK HealthCare’s clinical microbiology lab is home to one of the most important factors in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic—patient testing.

Since March 21, the lab has been testing for COVID-19 tests for UK HealthCare patients thanks to multiple collaborations across the hospital system. The test uses the Abbott M2000 instrument.

Once patients are tested—which involves a long, flexible swab that goes up the nose into the pharynx, which is located above the throat—the sample is then placed in a tube of liquid viral transport media to preserve it. From there, the samples are delivered to the laboratory for testing.

Working under a hood, laboratory scientists vortex the capped samples, which causes the fluid to swirl like a whirlpool and release the viral particles from the swab out into the solution. A portion of the fluid is then removed and placed in a new tube to go on the instrument for testing.

The Abbott M2000 allows UK’s lab scientists to test up to 94 samples in a single run. Samples are held in refrigeration until the batch is ready, then they’re vortexed a second time and placed inside the machine. Large batches of tests are strategically run throughout the day.

Over the next few hours, the Abbott M2000 extracts the virus’s  genetic material (RNA) and uses a series of heating and cooling cycles to amplify the amount of RNA present (a process known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR) to allow for the determination of a positive or negative result.

“This test requires about six hours of run time on the machine,” said Dr. C. Darrell Jennings, chair of the UK Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “When you then factor in delivering the sample to the lab, we are generally able to turn that test around in less than 24 hours.  Sometimes it’s as short as eight hours.”

Confirming a patient’s COVID-19 status quickly helps free up resources at UK HealthCare by helping the medical team determine the best location for that patient to be while they recover, whether that means they’re admitted to an intensive care unit in the hospital or sent home to self-quarantine.

“Having the ability to quickly test and diagnose our patients for COVID-19 is vital in our battle against this pandemic,” said Dr. Mark F. Newman, UK executive vice president for health affairs. “Our lab scientists have always played a huge part in helping patients across the enterprise get the treatments they need, and providing COVID-19 testing for us is another way they are making a difference in the health of Kentuckians from behind the scenes. All across UK HealthCare, I have been so proud of how our faculty and staff have stepped up to this unprecedented public health event.”