U of M says it can do widespread COVID-19 testing with homegrown tech

A set of hands working in a laboratory setting
A researcher from the University of Minnesota prepares samples for testing.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota

Updated 4:30 p.m.

University of Minnesota experts said Thursday that with $20 million in state funding they could soon begin testing up to 10,000 people per day for the coronavirus and another 10,000 per day for the presence of antibodies that indicate they have recovered from COVID-19.

That could provide a huge boost to Minnesota’s efforts to slowly reopen the economy. Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that Minnesota would need a drastic increase in COVID-19 testing in the next three weeks in order to begin safely restarting business sectors.

Researchers unveiled their testing effort Thursday, along with the legislative funding request.

University scientists started out from scratch to build tests that don’t suffer from supply shortages plaguing current testing, said Tim Schacker, vice dean for research at the U’s medical school. Unlike other new tests on the market, he added, the U method works.

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"Our goal from the very beginning was to create a platform of tests that we can be independent. We don't have to rely on supply chain issues, which are plaguing everybody. And we don't have to be draining away from that supply," Schacker said.

Medical school researchers say they hope to be able to test as many as 300,000 people a month to accurately gauge the extent of the outbreak and focus on keeping health care workers safe. More widespread testing could follow.

The proposal comes as testing has faltered in Minnesota and across the nation, falling on a daily basis by about a quarter for local diagnostic tests, compared to last week.

Walz said another test received by state officials recently had only enough materials for 120 tests, and that he expected the federal government would not offer any further assistance on testing.

“We think we need to be doing about 35,000 tests a week, to start getting the saturation,” Walz said Wednesday, speaking about testing shortages. He said widespread testing, to identify who may be even temporarily able to safely return to work, is a key to his plan to start easing economic and travel restrictions.

The University of Minnesota first announced its serological test on Tuesday and said it would use it first at the M Health Fairview Bethesda hospital, to determine the potential exposure of health care workers at the system’s first facility dedicated to COVID care.

The university unveiled its diagnostic molecular test at the end of March, using its own laboratory-developed procedure that wasn’t as constrained by worldwide lab chemical shortages as other tests. The U said at the time that it was limited to only a few dozen tests per day.

But the U said this week that molecular testing capacity had grown to more than 300 per day.

“Our goal is to get something that can be done at a much higher throughput and with supplies that are more widely available, so that we can look at testing the very large numbers you’re talking about when you start screening the whole state,” said a statement about the tests from Dr. Sophia Yohe, medical director of the molecular diagnostics lab at M Health Fairview.

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert contributed to this story.