Memphis-based laboratory initiates multiple lines of COVID-19 testing

Jason Bolton, Memphis Business Journal

A Memphis-based laboratory services company is gearing up to process thousands of COVID-19 tests per day.

Poplar Healthcare already had laboratory equipment in place at its 113,000-square-foot facility at 3495 Hacks Cross Road to ramp up testing efforts.

“As an anatomic pathology and molecular genetic laboratory that services doctors around the country on a daily basis to begin with, we have in the building several of the platforms that could be converted to support this type of testing,” said Jim Sweeney, Poplar Healthcare CEO.

Based on three different system platforms, Sweeney said his lab now has the capability to do 2,000 COVID-19 tests a day. The testing takes three to six hours to process, depending on the platform used.

Systems Online

In the last 48 hours, Poplar validated its largest potential testing system, the Thermo Fisher QuantStudio instrument, which can do 1,000 tests a day. Late last night, the validation of the test was submitted to the FDA as an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

Once a test has been validated by a separate laboratory and the EUA submitted, a lab can begin testing COVID-19 samples. Poplar began testing using the Thermo Fisher system today, April 2.

Similarly, Poplar can test another 800 patient samples a day using its Roche Cobas 480 system. On March 20, the company gathered materials needed — reagents and extraction kits — for doing laboratory developed tests (LDTs) on that system. An EUA was submitted for that process, as well.

Roche’s Cobas 6800 was already approved for an EUA on March 13, so Poplar can use its Cobas 6800 for that purpose. Depending on availability of kits from Roche, Poplar can test 200 patient samples a day, though that could increase over time, Sweeney said.

Performing those COVID-19 tests and running the machines are Poplar’s medical technologists with the support of other ancillary staff. About 45 to 50 of Poplar’s employees are involved and the company’s 25 pathologists could be — and have volunteered to be — used in case of a high volume of testing.

Sweeney said that the molecular team and lab operations staff have been at their facility every day, working 12 to 14-hour days.

Anami Patel, vice president of genomic operations and development with Poplar Healthcare, standing in front of the Roche Cobas 6800 System used for COVID-19 testing
POPLAR HEALTHCAREAnami Patel, vice president of genomic operations and development with Poplar Healthcare, standing in front of the Roche Cobas 6800 System used for COVID-19 testingEnlarge

Collaborative Efforts

Locally, Poplar has reached out to the metro’s hospitals and to the City of Memphis, letting them know of their new testing capabilities. Sweeney said he hopes to work more directly with an undisclosed local hospital system in the coming days to speed up their testing efforts.

Poplar is doing testing for Christ Community Health Services and Church Health, currently. And regionally, Poplar began receiving specimens about 10 days ago from multiple facilities in Arkansas.

Notably, Poplar is charging only exactly what Medicare will pay for the COVID-19 tests: $51.33.

“We're not marking it up one penny above that,” Sweeney said. “There are pop-up labs that are taking advantage of this and are charging patients two to three times that amount of money. And that is wrong.”

A complication in processing COVID-19 test is obtaining the necessary materials to do the tests from swabs and transport containers to reagents.

“We are trying to stay ahead of the material and the supply curve because [many] labs now are competing for the same sources of materials,” Sweeney said. “This is where the country is maybe shotgunning this as opposed to more strategically organizing this. But, we benefited by quickly getting up and running and our vendors like Thermo Fisher and Roche, they know what we're capable of doing."

The liquid handling devices used by Poplar Healthcare in COVID-19 testing
POLAR HEALTHCAREThe liquid handling devices used by Poplar Healthcare in COVID-19 testingEnlarge

Poplar is working with locally based genotyping company Transnetyx to procure its own source of transport media. Those can be made and shipped to Poplar in 48 to 72 hours. Transnetyx, a subsidiary of YX Genomics, has also helped Poplar with some of its lab’s robotic automation.

A shortage of nasal swabs has given rise to an effort nationally to enlist not-usual suppliers of those crucial swabs. Formlabs, a Massachusetts-based 3D printing company, is hosting a call today to share how to make the swabs on 3D printers, Sweeney said.

“Tool and die shops around the country can start making nasal swabs and then get them sterilized and packaged appropriately for use with patient care,” he said.

And, while Poplar has an eye on helping test for the coronavirus locally, their lab serves customers across the U.S. The first calls after getting its testing capability online was to some of the hardest hit areas in the Northeast.

“A week ago, we made sure we [checked with] every hospital in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, that they knew we were here, that we had FedEx here if they needed support, and some have taken us up on that,” Sweeney said. “Now as things are ramping up locally, we are positioned to shift and support [testing] whether it's anywhere in the U.S. or locally within the community."

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