25 Investigates

25 Investigates: Local team working to solve nationwide shortage of swabs needed for COVID-19 testing

BOSTON — For weeks, 25 Investigates has been asking, where are the coronavirus testing kits? Now, we’ve learned a team of researchers, doctors, and medical engineers are working to solve the nationwide shortage of the swabs used to test for COVID-19.

The initiative began in Boston at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

“Those are np swabs, nasopharyngeal swabs. Without those swabs, we don’t have testing,” said Dr. Ramy Arnaout, Associate Director of Clinical Microbiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

A nationwide shortage of the specialized swabs needed to test for COVID-19 is hampering testing efforts.

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Two weeks ago, Arnaout coordinated the work to change that.

First, his team started to scrounge for extras. Then, they tried to repurpose old swabs.

“All of those are stop-gap measures,” said Arnaout.

Quickly the team realized they'd need to manufacture their own.

"Not as simple as it sounds," he said. "The swab ends up just about between your ears. These are specialized little things. They have to be flexible, that they don't hurt you. They can't be brittle, no one wants anything broken off inside your nose."

The tip has to be specially designed to collect the sample.

"We basically had to reverse engineer all of that on a pretty urgent basis."

So brought to the table colleagues with expertise in research, development, and manufacturing to work openly and collectively.

"The problem is global, the solution had to be global," said Arnaout. "As we looked at manufacturing, we wanted a solution that could not only give us swabs but could us swabs at a scale that could solve this for everybody."

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The swabs had been largely produced by an Italian manufacturer, now overwhelmed by that country's severe outbreak.

The Boston-based team soon landed on the idea of 3D printing on a massive scale. Now, two swabs are ready for trialing here. If the trials are successful, Arnaout says daily production of up to a million swabs will soon begin. Adding testing is key to flattening the curve.

"Well the only way you get specific targeted treatments is to ask people, who you know have it, to participate in these trials," he said.

Testing on two prototypes will begin by Friday. Doctors will be asking patients to get tested for COVID-19 if they would be OK being swabbed twice.

Arnaout says the trial period could be a couple of days. The best-case scenario: mass manufacturing begins in two weeks.

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