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Wyss Researchers Could Contribute 200,000 COVID-19 Tests per Day by May Using New Nasal Swab

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Medical centers around the United States will begin testing a cheap and easily produced nasal swab for COVID-19 diagnostics designed by scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute next week.

Wyss researchers created the design using injection molding, a manufacturing process that is likely to make the tests less expensive and faster to make than previously used nasal swabs.

Wyss Institute Director Donald E. Ingber wrote in an email that the new tests could be half the price of standard nasal swabs, and up to an eighth of the price of 3D-printed swabs.

Based on the results of the trials, the new swabs are estimated to be produced at a rate of 200,000 per day by May 15, according to a press release by the Institute.

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The researchers involved are working with eight hospitals and testing centers, where the swabs will be tested and compared to other swab designs.

Richard Novak, a Wyss senior engineer and lead investigator on the project, wrote in an email that he hopes the new swabs will make a significant impact on testing rates in the United States.

“Our goal is to alleviate the current need for increased testing to reduce the incidence rate of COVID and enable a better understanding of infections to allow reopening,” Novak wrote. “While faster and less invasive tests are being developed and approved by the FDA, nasopharyngeal swabbing is still the gold standard, and testing centers in many areas are not running close to capacity, partly due to rationing of swabs.”

Among other unique features, the new design features grooves at the tip of each swab. Novak wrote that his team hopes the swabs’ new characteristics may enhance their ability to collect human samples.

“The new design should perform similarly to standard swabs in general as the grooved features serve a similar role of trapping cells, virus, and mucus as the fibers on a traditional swab,” Novak wrote. “However, I speculate that there may be the possibility of more efficient elution of the collected material from our swabs due to the lack of the dense fibers. This is just a hypothesis.”

The team of scientists worked remotely throughout the project, a system that initially presented some challenges, according to Ingber.

“In the beginning, it felt like the first battle of a major war, and there was a lot of desperation in the communications from the clinical side, and many different groups proposing many different approaches,” Ingber wrote. “But the generosity of scientists, engineers, and clinicians at both companies and in academia, in terms of sharing their time, ideas, and resources, was impressive.”

He added that the swab project is one of several Institute-led efforts to combat COVID-19.

“This is actually only the small tip of the iceberg of what is going on at the Wyss Institute,” he wrote. “Other teams at the Institute have been developing PPEs, but our largest activities are focused on developing COVID19 therapeutics, diagnostics, and vaccines.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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