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Broad Researchers Enhance Facilities to Run 2,000 COVID-19 Tests per Day

Located near Central Square, the Broad Institute is a center for biomedical and genomics research.
Located near Central Square, the Broad Institute is a center for biomedical and genomics research. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

The Broad Institute is processing COVID-19 test samples from across New England at a rate of approximately 2,000 samples per day, the organization announced in a press release Thursday.

Broad researchers have increased their COVID-19 testing rate to approximately 12 hours per test by modifying the institute’s Clinical Research Sequencing Platform, a facility originally used for evaluating clinical samples for genomic tests. The CRSP is secure, and the federal Food and Drug Administration has validated it to function as a COVID-19 testing lab, according to the release.

“It can return data to physicians for use in diagnostics and patient care and in clinical trials,” the press release reads. “It is highly automated so that it can handle large numbers of samples. This lab is authorized to process samples collected in hospitals and other clinical settings and then deliver the results securely back to physicians.””

The news comes as Massachusetts has reported more than 4,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 27 members of the Harvard community testing positive for the virus as of last Friday.

Because state and University regulations largely bar in-person research operations, only “about 10 percent” of Broad researchers are working at the lab, with others contributing remotely.

Sheila Dodge, the general manager of Broad Genomics, said the institute conducts COVID-19 tests by analyzing RNA from nasal and oral samples.

“What we’re doing with these clinical samples is we get a nasal swab or an oral swab from the different hospital sites,” Dodge said. “We’ll actually take that and we’ll push it through what we call a reverse transcription quantitative PCR assay. So it’s not a sequencing assay, it’s actually much simpler. It’s a very simple readout that allows us to see if the virus is present or not.”

Broad scientists say they have manipulated multiple of the institute’s existing structures and facilities for high-scale COVID-19 testing. Broad Genomics Platform senior director Stacey Gabriel said the institute has always been able to quickly process numerous test samples — an ability it is now taking advantage of.

“This is what we’re built for, in this production environment here. We’re built for receiving thousands of samples a day,” Gabriel said. “That’s very purposefully how we’ve designed our systems.”

The rapid focus on COVID-19 testing is an unprecedented change for the Broad Institute, which has typically pursued more long-term projects, according to Niall Lennon, Broad’s senior director of translational genomics.

“It’s a different problem for us for sure,” Lennon said. “We are used to tackling chronic diseases over a long period of time. This has been a very different case. We’ve had to react very quickly – things are moving at breakneck speed for us – but we had to respond to the problem that’s in front of us now.”

“We can’t plan for next year yet,” he added. “We need to solve today’s problem today.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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