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Dec. 3, 2020

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Vancouver-based lab responds to COVID-19 with technical savvy, tools

Molecular Testing Labs handles swab tests for more than 400 clients

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
6 Photos
General lab technologists Nicolas Diaz, left, and Jessica Haglund work at Molecular Testing Labs, which is among those who are processing testing for COVID-19. The company was able to quickly adapt to offering COVID-19 testing once the pandemic hit, and it's become a large part of its business model.
General lab technologists Nicolas Diaz, left, and Jessica Haglund work at Molecular Testing Labs, which is among those who are processing testing for COVID-19. The company was able to quickly adapt to offering COVID-19 testing once the pandemic hit, and it's become a large part of its business model. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

There was a moment in February when Vancouver-based Molecular Testing Labs knew that COVID-19 was spreading across the globe. But no one knew how bad it would be.

As the virus spread in March, James York, business development director, pondered the national demand for tests. The company, which offers at-home HIV tests among its products and services, realized that it was positioned to offer much-needed swab tests for COVID-19.

“It was a little bit of a leap of faith to say we’re going to devote our resources as a company into this,” York said over a Zoom call with The Columbian on Thursday.

It was the right move. Molecular Testing Labs is now contracting with more than 400 clients spanning multiple states. It assembles, distributes, collects and processes an average of 6,000 COVID-19 tests a day, delivering results in 1.5 to 1.8 days, York said. The company is still ramping up to fill the needs of testing.

“When COVID happened, we were very well positioned from a technical and tools position,” he said. “We had lofty budgets in 2020. We’ve exceeded them and then exceeded them again.”

The firm’s 36,000-square-foot building, at 14401 S.E. First St., held 89 employees before COVID-19. It now holds more than 250, and the company is still expanding. It has repurposed meeting rooms and other space for COVID-19 testing.

“We had space that was going to be a gym. Now it’s a fulfillment center,” York said. “Just from a fulfillment perspective, it’s been challenging to keep up with the number of orders for swab kits.”

York said that the company will be ready to process 60,000 tests per week by the end of next week. The company’s goal is to process tests in 24 hours.

Molecular Testing Labs receives tests from more than 300 nursing homes, and it also sources tests through state governments, including Washington and Oregon. But the company also expects to offer at-home COVID-19 tests for individuals once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves it — something in the works since March.

“The FDA has been somewhat selective,” he said. “We are currently not one of (the labs) that are authorized. It’s a goal of ours. We’ve been working on it for — it feels like so long. I would have thought that we’ve been able to do this by now.”

Along with diagnosing COVID-19 cases, the company is working on a study called COVIDVU with Emory University, funded by the National Institutes of Health. The national study uses at-home testing kits to gather data from 10,000 households to understand the extent of the pandemic. (The company only uses at-home tests with the study.)

“The study looks for both active infections and antibody response,” wrote Josette Marquand, spokesperson for Molecular Testing Labs. “The results will provide us with a big-picture view of the virus, including how it affects different demographic, geographic, and occupational groups.”

When Molecular Testing Labs receives an order, workers assemble testing kit components with instructions, send the kits out, obtain samples, run them through diagnostics and provide results. The company also has its own software that it uses to offer the results too, York said.

“In this day and age, we have to be part lab, part digital platform,” he said. “We built the software system from the ground up. We have a team that codes.”

While COVID has created a mandatory evolution of health care, it’s made providers more creative in interacting with patients, York said.

“Telehealth has grown greatly,” he said. “One of the missing pieces is getting lab results.”

Given how many decisions are made through those results, York said, the company is positioned to fill the need with its testing kits.

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