Bay Area cities are taking up the mantle to test their first responders, health care workers and even members of the public for COVID-19 using technology from a Menlo Park company.
Avellino Lab USA, Inc. on March 9 received U.S. Food and Drug Administration validation for its COVID-19 test on an emergency basis. The company, which specializes in gene therapy and molecular diagnostics, especially for rare genetic eye diseases, quickly adapted its technology to develop a rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to look at gene markers and the ribonucleic acid (RNA) — snippets of genetic material — of SARS-CoV-2, known commonly as the novel coronavirus. Results can be processed in four to seven hours, Eric Bernabei, chief sales and marketing officer, said by phone on Friday.
Avellino is currently working with the cities of Hayward and Fremont at city-run sites so that first responders, health care workers and people who are sick or were recently exposed to the disease can be quickly tested. The sites are among the first in the Bay Area where testing is being done by local municipalities. Most other COVID-19 testing thus far has been set up by clinics, hospitals and county public health departments.
Avellino began testing with the city of Hayward starting March 23 and in Fremont on Friday. Officials sought a way to take pressure off hospital emergency rooms, provide quicker answers to recently exposed first responders and health care workers and to improve the region's ability to suppress new transmissions through isolation after testing, authorities of those cities said in statements.
In addition to first-responders and medical personnel, the testing sites are open to the public. The free screening is available to people who are concerned about having the virus, regardless of where they live or their immigration status, officials in both cities said.
On Friday afternoon at the Fremont Fire Tactical Training Center on Stevenson Boulevard, people who arrived at the testing site stayed in their cars. Under a small, white canopy, firefighter-paramedics in white, protective covering and masks screened patients for symptoms of the coronavirus.
To receive a swab test, the patient must have symptoms of the coronavirus, including a fever of 100 degrees, a cough and shortness of breath. Those with the symptoms are then swabbed through their nasal cavities and the back of the throat by firefighter-paramedics or nurses. Nearby, the medical team is supported by ambulance company emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
The swab is immersed in a liquid-medium-filled vial, which kills the virus but preserves the genetic material. It is sealed and sent to Avellino where it is tested. From swab to transport, sterilizing the outside of the building after the batches of samples arrive, testing and confirming the data, the turn-around time is on average under 48 hours, Bernabei said.
"We're pacing ourselves as we ramp up," he said.
The results are reported to the individual who was tested, their primary care physician and local public health authorities in the person's county of residence. The results are added to the county's daily positive case updates and shared with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Hayward authorities. People who test positive are given instructions on how to isolate themselves and steps to control further transmission of the virus.
Hayward authorities said the testing center is outfitted with enough kits to test up to 350 people a day. Of 1,254 people who were among the first to be tested at the Hayward center, 130 were positive for COVID-19.
Bernabei said the swab tests tell when people have the active virus, whether they show symptoms or not. The information can help control the spread of the virus by identifying those who should be in quarantine.
In contrast, a different kind of test, for antibody antigens, is done through a blood sample. Those tests are good for identifying actively infected populations and those who have had the virus. The problem with finger-prick tests that use blood samples is they don't show evidence of the virus for the first six to 14 days of infection because it takes time for the body to make antibodies after exposure to the disease, he said.
Bernabei said the company has goals to triple its staff and to increase to 7,000 tests per day with plans to ramp up to 200,000 tests per month, but there's no hard timeline to reach those levels. Much depends on "having the right partners and investments," he said.
Avellino is solely focused on COVID-19 testing at this time.
"We have suspended all other test product lines and are only focused on our COVID-19 testing until the crisis is over," Bernabei said.
About the testing sites: The Hayward testing center is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., at Hayward Fire Station #7, 28270 Huntwood Ave.
The Fremont testing site is at the Fremont Fire Tactical Training Center, 7200 Stevenson Blvd., daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. or until the maximum number of tests are completed for the day. Drive-up only.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.