UPMC Developing Test for COVID-19

By: Allison Hydzik

UPMC Clinical Laboratories are rapidly developing a test for use in diagnosing patients suspected of having COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus rapidly spreading worldwide. UPMC is creating its own test to significantly shorten the time it takes to get from suspected case to diagnosis.

Dr. Alan Wells, medical director of UPMC Clinical Laboratories, briefed media on the test development and provided an update on outside COVID-19 testing today as part of an expert panel gathered at UPMC Montefiore Hospital.

“It’s important to do in-house testing so that we can accelerate our time for identifying these cases, and ensure the best care and infectious disease protocols for patients as soon as possible,” said Wells, explaining that with its own test, UPMC will be able to diagnose patients “within the same day, and help to contain the spread of this virus.”

While UPMC develops its test — a process expected to take weeks — it will continue to work with public health authorities to get patients suspected of having COVID-19 tested. Quest Diagnostics, a joint venture partner of UPMC, also recently announced it will provide limited testing at specialty laboratories, and UPMC will work with Quest to leverage its testing capabilities. Testing at state public health laboratories is free to the public, and UPMC Health Plan announced last week that it would waive applicable deductibles, copayments and other cost-sharing for private COVID-19 testing when ordered by a member’s treating medical provider.

Wells stressed that UPMC’s ability to quickly develop a test has been aided by its strong partnership with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research is pursuing development of a COVID-19 vaccine and, a few weeks ago, was one of the first such centers to receive samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” he said. “The center’s director, Dr. Paul Duprex, is safely sharing genetic samples with our labs to assist with the development of our diagnostic test. These partnerships are what make UPMC and Pitt unique and world-class institutions.”

UPMC Clinical Laboratories are the largest academic-based system in the United States. COVID-19 test development is being led by its virology team, Drs. Tung Phan, Charles Rinaldo, Jr., and Stephanie Mitchell, all of whom have created laboratory developed tests for emerging infections during other pandemics.

UPMC is following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for a PCR-amplification test, a type of testing that allows scientists to take a very small sample of genetic material and safely amplify it exponentially, allowing for diagnosis. UPMC’s test will be validated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments program, which oversees laboratories performing testing to ensure accurate and reliable test results.

There currently are no patients known to have COVID-19 at any UPMC facility, and having its own test will not change the treatment UPMC provides to any future COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Graham Snyder, medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at UPMC.

“But it will allow us to move faster to prevent exposure to others,” he said. “There is no specific treatment for COVID-19, though there are many clinical trials under way to test potential treatments. For now, we will care for these patients as needed with respiratory and other supportive measures.”