What it’s like to run a lab that churns out thousands of coronavirus test results per day

Under the leadership of Jared Auclair, an associate teaching professor of biotechnology, Northeastern’s Life Science Testing Center at the Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, has been processing coronavirus tests around the clock. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

One night, during the four hours of sleep he’s been getting in recent weeks, Jared Auclair gasped for breath as he felt a stranger attempting to pin him down to his bed and force a small Q-tip into his nostril, as if trying to swab him for a coronavirus test. 

It was all just a weird dream. But for Auclair, who oversees the laboratory that provides the results for Northeastern’s coronavirus tests, it felt much too real. 

“I started screaming and thrashing and jumping around,” recalls Auclair. “I dream about the lab—I dream about equipment, and I even have these weird dreams, nightmares.”

The odd dream is no more than a funny memory in hindsight, Auclair says. But there’s no denying that these days he is completely engaged in the university’s operation to test thousands of people every day for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness.

Soon after Memorial Day in late May, when the university finalized plans to start building a facility that could test everyone who works and studies on the Boston campus quickly, regularly, and reliably, the hard work began for Auclair. 

Jared Auclair also directs the Biopharmaceutical Analysis Training Lab, which offers training in analytical chemistry to help scientists, engineers, and lab technicians produce high quality drugs for patients around the world. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

In about eight weeks, that facility became the Life Sciences Testing Center in the university’s Innovation Campus at Burlington, Massachusetts. The center has delivered results for more than 11,000 samples in its first two weeks of operation, but will ramp up its operation as the fall semester begins and the university begins testing students, faculty, staff, and contract workers on campus twice a week.

The volume of test results that have been churned out thus far puts the center high on the list of labs that are processing coronavirus tests at large scales in the U.S., says Auclair, who is also an associate teaching professor of biotechnology. 

“We produce more test results on a day than most states in the country do,” he says. “The number of pieces that I’m trying to move to ensure that the lab has what it needs to be operational, and the staff, and the equipment, the reagents—it’s massive.”

But it is all part of a comprehensive effort to conduct large-scale, systematic testing on the Boston campus and help Northeastern reopen while promoting safety for everyone on campus and the surrounding communities. 

And, Auclair says he is here for it.

These days, the lab runs from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m, when Auclair sends out a daily report to update Northeastern’s testing dashboard with the latest available test results of the day. 

“Chances are I’m awake during all those hours,” Auclair says. “I try to stay up until 1 am, when the lab closes, to make sure everything is okay, report out the results, and fall asleep by 2 a.m.” 

In advance of the beginning of the fall semester, Auclair and the 25 people who work in his lab are ramping up their operation to be ready to analyze more than 5,000 samples a day, with an expansion of the facility to add more square footage and scientists with the skills to handle viral samples.

Some of Northeastern’s samples are tested by the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The university is working with the biomedical research center as part of its overall testing protocol.

“Now, all of my efforts are turned towards maintaining quality while scaling up our effort,” Auclair says. “If we’re not going to produce quality results, there’s no point.”

To produce those quality results, and determine whether someone has been infected with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, the lab runs diagnostics to search for specific genes from the virus within a sample. The accuracy of such viral tests depends on which genes the lab looks for.

The type of test Northeastern’s Life Sciences Testing Center is employing looks for three different genes from the SARS-CoV-2 genome to determine whether someone has contracted the virus. 

That approach, combined with the university’s requirements to test everyone returning to campus this fall regularly, is designed to serve as an important tool to monitor the health of everyone at Northeastern.

A test that monitors for three different spots within the genome of the virus gives scientists a more robust tool to monitor for potential mutations within the virus. That’s also important, Auclair says, because the mutation rate of the virus might change, and it could potentially lead to faulty tests that miss the mark in determining whether people—with or without symptoms of COVID-19—have the virus.

Auclair thinks of this ability to monitor multiple genes like monitoring various exits on a highway. If you keep an eye on only one exit, you might not get a very clear picture of the highway. Northeastern’s test monitors for multiple “exits”, so it is able to produce more reliable results, Auclair says.

“The CDC test is monitoring exit 10,” Auclair says. “Our test monitors exit one, exit five, and exit 10, so we have a better idea of what’s happening across that highway.”

The Life Sciences Testing Center, under Auclair’s leadership, was built to do all that without impairing its capability to produce fast and accurate results. 

That’s crucial, Auclair says, because every sample the lab analyzes represents someone’s life. And, if that test comes back positive, that person’s life will change dramatically for weeks to come.

“We’re all patients—we are a clinically certified lab,” he says. “We’re doing medical tests, not looking at participants, but looking at patients.”

Which is what keeps Auclair highly motivated and committed in the effort to help everyone within the Northeastern community receive quick and reliable results as part of an operation that also involves safety measures to bring the campus back to life. 

“With mandatory facemasks, monitoring through testing, and other measures,” he says. “We’ve got to be proactive and get back to life and adapt as we need to, and the university is doing that in what, to me, is the smartest, most efficient way.”

And how do you produce quality results that way? Auclair spends the day checking on results from the lab’s daily testing operations, making sure processes run smoothly.  

The lab receives batches of 100 to 500 samples from the Boston campus every couple of hours. Those samples can be analyzed in sets of 94 at a time with specialized equipment, and are scanned to ensure they are anonymous through the entire process. With samples constantly coming into the lab, it becomes an intricate and complicated process. 

“We have to know where that sample is going for the rest of its life cycle in the lab, from that check-in all the way through the reporting,” Auclair says. “You have to make sure the right person is getting the right results, and you’ve got to make sure the results are right.”

A team of 25 people trained to analyze and handle human samples potentially contaminated with the virus work at different stations, making sure samples are being pipetted properly, monitoring the machines that conduct the diagnostic tests, and finally, procuring and reporting the data for results. 

In the lab, energy flows as it would at a startup company, Auclair says. But at the same time, everything is focused and systematic.

“We have systems everywhere, so no one person is only responsible for one thing,” Auclair says. “It’s all a team—we double check, triple check, quadruple check.”

And, with more tests to come in the fall, that startup will need to run like a medium-sized business in a matter of weeks. 

“We’re trying to scale from what we started,  1,500 tests [a day] last week, and what should be on the order of around 3,000 [a day] this week, and around 5,000 [a day] next week,” Auclair says. “In the next four to six weeks, we’re looking to scale up to 10,000 tests per day.”

Regardless of how many samples need to be processed, the plan is to always stick to the procedures fastidiously, and to produce reliable results that the university can use to promote the wellness of the campus and stay on top of potential outbreaks.

“The thing we really focus on is accuracy,” Auclair says. “Take your time, don’t rush—we want to produce good results. We want to get volume, but not at the expense of quality.” 

Ian Thomsen contributed to this report.

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