WVU producing thousands of swabs for COVID-19 testing across the state


A lot of about 300 swabs are ready to come out of a 3D printer used to produce the swabs at the Innovation Hub at WVU. Following removal, the swabs undergo a two-step process to rinse and cure them individually before they are packaged. (Formlabs Photo)

UPDATE (MAY 28, 2020 4:54 p.m.): A follow-up with Gene Cilento and Dr. Peter Perrotta

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Innovation Hub at West Virginia University is working with WVU Medicine to produce up to 10,000 swabs per week to meet demands for COVID-19 testing.

A release from the university stated that the production of the swabs at WVU began following a request from state officials and the West Virginia National Guard to ramp up COVID-19 testing throughout the state. University officials said that the swabs will be distributed across West Virginia, especially to the communities that have been hit hardest by the disease.

The release stated that select health departments across the state have already been offering free COVID-19 testing.

For COVID-19 testing, swabs – which resemble flexible Q-tips – are inserted into the nose and through the back of the throat where a specimen is collected onto the swab. The swab is then removed, placed in a vial with sterile fluid and sent to a laboratory for testing.

University officials said that swabs are a universal necessity and most novel coronavirus tests depend on a continuous supply of them. Swab tests check for active infections, unlike an antibody test that draws blood to see if a person has recovered from the virus, the release stated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to quickly come up with creative ways to overcome shortages of critical supplies like swabs,” said Dr. Peter Perrotta, system director of pathology services for WVU Medicine. “The partnership between the College of Engineering and the hospital will help us produce up to 10,000 swabs a week to help meet testing needs across the state.”

The release stated that the Innovation Hub, housed in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, partnered hrough an agreement between the hospital and Formlabs, a 3D-printing technology developer and manufacturer based in Somerville, Massachusetts, to produce swabs for doing these tests.

“Our Innovation Hub managers stepped up and said, ‘Let’s use the Innovation Hub to make some prototypes,’” said Gene Cilento, the Hub’s director and professor of chemical engineering. “We were just thinking of how we could help the hospital through the pandemic, especially with the shortage of critical supplies.”

According to the release, WVU’s existing relationship with Formlabs, in which the company’s printers have been used by the Statler College to print jigs and fixtures, helped accelerate a smooth process in producing the swabs, said Max Lobovsky, Formlabs CEO and co-founder.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S., Formlabs worked with our partners at WVU to find a way to print swabs safely so WVU could offer the swabs to its network of hospitals and health organizations that needed access to this crucial testing component,” Lobovsky said.

“From the onset of COVID-19, Formlabs felt compelled to provide assistance knowing that the speed and flexibility of 3D printing could improve the shortages caused by COVID-19, and we are proud to see our community of users continue to join the fight against this pandemic.”

According to the release, the West Virginia National Guard said mass production of these swabs will enable more residents across the state to be tested at a greater pace and scale.

“One of the most important things identified for our state to combat COVID-19 is our ability to conduct testing on a large scale,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. “Understanding this vital need, the Guard has stepped up to provide assistance in procuring the necessary materials to make swabs right here in West Virginia. Just as we have been innovative in developing our own PPE, this is another example of the type of collaboration and ingenuity that makes West Virginia stand out amongst the crowd in our ongoing response to this pandemic.”

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