After months of complaints about delays in tests, New York officials will announce Thursday that they have opened a lab in Manhattan that should significantly reduce waiting times as the city prepares for the most ambitious opening period, with classes in state schools and the indoor dining room is scheduled to begin this month.
Instead of depending on the big lab companies – which have been overwhelmed by demand across the country as the virus continues to spread, leading to backlogs – the new facility will give priority to New Yorkers, meaning implementation time within 24-48 hours, officials said.
“This will only give us more capacity in terms of the huge number,” said Dr. Jay Varma, a councilor at City Hall who plays a leading role in the city’s coronavirus response. “It will also give us control, because this is a laboratory really dedicated to New York.”
New York has one of the most ambitious coronavirus testing programs in the country, with tampons mixing more than 200,000 people a week, more than 2 percent of the city’s population. The new lab, which began processing tests this week, should eventually help significantly expand that.
The lab, located on the 12th floor of First Avenue and East 29th Street, is run by a small robotics company, Opentrons. But New York has played a significant role in setting up the lab, city officials said. So far, the city and the system of public hospitals are the only client of the laboratory.
Initially, the new lab, called the Pandemic Response Laboratory, will process only a few thousand tests a day, mostly from samples collected at test sites managed by the city’s public hospital system, City Hall and Opentron officials said.
But it is expected that eventually the laboratory will be able to test more than 40,000 samples a day, possibly including some of the students and teachers in public schools, as needed.
By Wednesday morning, the lab had returned the results of the first 712 samples sent and is currently able to process about 3,000 samples a day, a number expected to rise dramatically next week, a laboratory spokesman said.
Public health officials hope that testing – for the first time since the coronavirus arrived in New York – will no longer be a scarce resource.
The new lab is the latest chapter in the city’s long-standing efforts to solve a series of problems plaguing the test effort. The problems return to February and March, when a series of missteps and disastrous decisions by the federal government meant few people qualified for the test – even when they showed clear symptoms of Covid-19 – when the virus began circulating in New York and its suburbs.
Initially, the federal government had a monopoly on testing, and the city tried to develop its ability to test on its own. Initially, efforts were hampered by a shortage of test kits, chemical reagents and even swabs used to collect samples.
In the following months, the largest national laboratories drastically increased their testing capacity, and New York began to rely on them to handle most local tests. But some of those labs, such as Quest Diagnostics, have grown this summer amid deteriorating outbreaks elsewhere in the country.
This contributed to a wait of 2 to 3 weeks for the results of the tests in New York. It was clear to public health officials that New York needed more testing infrastructure that it could control – or at least rely on.
“We will enter the scale of test capacity, which we consider critical, “said Dr. Varma.
The additional capacity could be useful against the backdrop of upcoming pressure for students and teachers to be tested, as classroom instruction resumes for hundreds of thousands in the public school system. And as the flu season begins and colds begin to circulate in greater numbers, demand for tests may increase as New Yorkers struggle with symptoms that may or may not mean Covid-19.
“We knew we really needed our testing capacity to be maximized in the fall,” Dr. Varma said.
Opentrons, the robotics company that will run the lab, specializes in the automation of research labs. Jonathan Brennan-Badal, the company’s chief executive, said three robotic arms would move trays, each containing about 380 samples, between different test stations.
The laboratory expects to begin pooling samples, a method in which a number of samples are grouped together and tested as one.
James Pachet, president of the city’s economic development corporation, expressed hope that by merging the lab, he would eventually be able to test 40,000 to 60,000 samples a day.
The boost for the lab dates back to early April, in the midst of the outbreak, when the mayor’s office realized it was facing a shortage of critical supplies.
Month after month, the city’s test program remains a weak link in its ability to respond to the coronavirus.
The city itself has a limited capacity to process tests. It had its own public health laboratory of the Ministry of Health, as well as rapid testing equipment in various city sexual health clinics and public hospitals. Eventually, the city can handle about 10,000 tests a day alone, said Jeff Tamkitikasem, director of the mayor’s operations department.
Mayor Bill de Blasio talks about the city’s ambition to test 50,000 New Yorkers a day by the end of the summer.
For months, the city hall and the city’s economic development agency have been in talks with laboratory companies and start-ups to build more laboratory capacity dedicated to conducting tests for New York.
The new lab will rely in part on a process developed by genetic researchers at New York’s Langone Medical Center, said Mr Brennan-Badal, CEO of Opentrons. In addition to allowing large-scale testing, the process also consumes relatively fewer reagents and other supplies, which were scarce at various points in the pandemic, he said.
The city will pay Opentrons $ 28 for each test, which Mr Brennan-Badal said was less than a third of what some other labs charge.
Mr Thamkittikasem, the mayor’s assistant mayor, said the plan was for the lab to eventually test and test for the flu.