UC Berkeley scientists research using robots to lower COVID-19 test result turnaround time

California Connection

BERKELEY, Calif. (KTXL) — Researchers at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California, Berkeley are spearheading a volunteer effort to develop a speeder process to analyze COVID-19 tests using robotics.

While test kits have been coming online at a faster pace in recent weeks, getting test results back quickly to help isolate infected people is still a problem.

“The core of the matter is to be able to test people for the virus and test them fast,” explained Fyodor Urnov, a professor of molecular and cell biology at IGI. “The current turnaround time is still three days plus, which is unacceptable.”

Urnov said a call went out for volunteers to develop a speedier solution and it quickly got 860 responses. The project picked the most talented of them and assembled a team that included people from the private sector as well.

The result is a promising system that uses robots to handle test samples 300 at a time, with results completed in about a day.  

Once the system is certified by medical authorities, Urnov says 1,000 tests can be analyzed, with the capability of handling two or three times that many.

Relaxed rules for developing such systems enabled the scientists who normally work on individual research problems to come together to develop a quicker solution in the battle against the virus.

The system still needs fine-tuning, which Urnov said leads to a lot of sleepless nights.

But he said the urgency and the consequences worldwide make the effort worthwhile, although he said his team hopes that their system never reaches its maximum output. 

“I hope we don’t get there and, frankly, I think more aggressive testing, as being deployed, could help prevent that from being necessary,” Urnov said.

The team hopes their innovative approach can be certified sometime next week.

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