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WVU researchers developing COVID-19 tests as students prepare to return to campus

Tests to be more reliable, cheaper than current ones on the market
Published: Jun. 24, 2020 at 3:47 PM EDT
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va (WDTV) - One of the main problems faced in the fight against the coronavirus is the availability of tests.

As WVU prepares to welcome back thousands of students back to Morgantown, researchers there are developing their own tests that they say are better and cheaper than ones currently on the market.

Dr. Ivan Martinez, an associate professor in the WVU Cancer Institute and School of Medicine, is on the team developing the tests.

"The easiest way for us to do it was to do it from scratch," Martinez said.

He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization dictate what chemicals, called reagents, can be used in the COVID-19 tests.

But companies behind the tests are finding they don't have enough resources to meet the high demand.

Martinez said his team is finding the tests they're developing are more sensitive than ones currently on the market and therefore more accurate.

Peter Stoilov, an associate professor of biochemistry, is also working on developing the tests.

“This is something very important that everyone getting tested should understand: we can be certain that a positive test is positive, but we can never say with absolute certainty that a negative test is negative,” Stoilov said in a news release. “All we can say is that there was not enough of the virus for the test to detect it. It could be that there was no virus at all, but it is also possible that there two few viral particles for the test to produce a signal.”

The team is also working with robots to increase the number of tests they can process at once.

"The advantage that we have is that we're trying to not only make the steps easier and more straight forward, but we're also trying to improve what's already there," Martinez said.

They're also finding that in the way they're planning to roll out their own tests, they will be more cost-efficient than ones currently recommended. They're currently going through regulatory approval with the CDC to use the tests on the general public.

WVU plans to reopen campus in the fall with several restrictions and requirements in place.

Among them - every student, faculty and staff member will be required to get a COVID-19 test.

The initial round of testing will be purchased from a commercial company, according to Martinez. He he said he hopes shortly after students return, they can have the tests developed in-house ready for students and faculty. They also hope to have the tests ready in case there is a second wave of the virus, or the state identifies pockets of infection.

"We want to do this as soon as possible," Martinez said. "We want to be ready for the fall semester."

Before students and faculty return to campus, they will be required to take a coronavirus education course. Once they get to Morgantown, along with getting a test, they’ll also be required to wear masks and social distance.

Another team headed by Dr. Heath Damron, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology and the director of the Vaccine Development Center, is developing their own antibody test.

“Responses to vaccines will be different depending on if someone has been exposed to the virus or not,” Damron said in a news release. “We also wanted to have a test that we were capable of producing the proteins for in house, so we would be less affected by supply chain issues.”

Martinez said the research has the backing of the university community, including Dr. Clay Marsh, the WVU Health Sciences vice president and executive dean who also serves as West Virginia's coroanvirus czar, and WVU President Gordon Gee.

“We are happy to have all this support to help us develop this test,” Martinez said. “For us, it’s an honor to help WVU and help the state to develop this test. Hopefully, everybody starts to go back to a level of normality.”

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