A professor in the UW-Madison Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, David O’Connor, is working to develop a COVID-19 test to be used in institutions such as nursing homes or large workplaces.
O’Connor was a panelist in the Wisconsin Alumni and Research Foundation’s third COVID-19 edition of its event series “Crossroads of Ideas” titled “Where do we go from here?”
He is “anticipating federal guidelines are going to change” on patients needing to be symptomatic for a test, as his lab is aiming for this test to be used for pre-symptomatic people.
He is working with Profs. Dave Beebe and Tom Friedrich to develop a colorimetric test for the virus, SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease, COVID-19. O’Connor said that one of the testing limitations right now is that it needs to take place in “centralized labs” with “fancy equipment.” But in this rapid test, a swab sample that has the virus’s nucleic acid or RNA would cause the material in a tube to turn yellow; if not, pink.
“We imagine that a truly rapid test would need to be deployed to nursing homes,” said O’Connor, noting that there are 15,000 nursing homes in the nation. “You can imagine having a device that can be deployed at nursing homes, at any nursing home that has ongoing cases, it could be, having their people tested every day.”
Deployment of the test would depend on a pending grant with RADx, a government program that’s designed to accelerate the development and deployment of tests like this, according to O’Connor.
If it gets funded, RADx will do rapid development over about a four-week period to see if it would be feasible for commercialization on a scale of millions of tests per week. If so, they aim to have it available by the end of the summer — “highly ambitious, especially from where we are now,” he said.
Looking ahead, O’Connor doesn’t know how COVID-19 will behave in the winter.
“A lot of people who believe they were infected last winter, were infected with something else, possibly influenza B, possibly something else,” he said adding that probably only 1 percent of people in Dane County had it last winter, and they would have been classified at a higher than average risk level.
“With most people having not been infected, certainly around here, it’s going to be an open question what happens next winter.”
Also in O’Connor’s Laboratory, investigators lead CoVen, an international collaboration developing COVID-19 animal models to test vaccines and treatments. The group has also been responsible for sequencing SARS-CoV-2 genomes from cases throughout Dane and Milwaukee Counties to understand how these viruses are moving through Wisconsin.
-By Stephanie Hoff