A new $13.3 million contract from the National Institutes of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, or RADx, will enable the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to expand its capacity to process COVID-19 tests.

UCLA’s diagnostic laboratory will be able to process up to 150,000 COVID-19 tests per day using SwabSeq, a sequencing technology developed at UCLA. The technology pools thousands of saliva samples and returns individual test results in less than 24 hours.

“UCLA developed SwabSeq and brought the technology to market in only six months — a process that normally takes years,” said Eleazar Eskin, chair of computational medicine at the Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering.

UCLA researchers pioneered the technology in April 2020 in collaboration with Octant, a startup company founded at UCLA, and the SwabSeq laboratory opened for business on campus in October 2020. SwabSeq is quicker and less expensive than the widely used polymerase chain reaction method, which requires a secondary process that limits the number of daily tests a lab can perform.

“UCLA Health relies on the SwabSeq platform to regularly test its health care workforce,” said Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health and CEO of UCLA Hospital System. “With the additional capacity afforded by this new contract, we hope to accommodate the testing needs of other health care workers in the state.”

From lab to vending machine

SwabSeq tests are already in use by UCLA faculty, staff and students returning to campus for the 2021–22 academic year. UCLA is encouraging members of the campus community to test themselves for COVID-19 weekly using free kits, which are available from a dozen vending machines located throughout the campus.

After depositing their completed SwabSeq tests in collection bins next to the vending machines, users are notified by email or text when their results are available from a secure website.

The SwabSeq lab is also analyzing COVID-19 saliva tests for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which administers one of the largest testing programs in the country. The lab also provides COVID-19 testing for Pepperdine University, Cal Poly Pomona and UC Santa Barbara, and has performed tests for Caltech and UC Irvine in the past.

How it works

SwabSeq attaches a piece of DNA that acts like a molecular “bar code” to each person’s saliva sample, allowing scientists to combine large batches of samples together in a sequencing machine and rapidly identify those that have the virus.

The testing method, which was one of the first DNA-sequencing methods to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, can also be applied to nasal COVID-19 testing samples.

“Due to the advances in sequencing technology over the past two decades, today’s genomic sequencers are able to process tens of thousands of samples at the same time,” Eskin said. “This compares very favorably to other approaches that process hundreds of samples simultaneously.“

Poised to address future pandemics

A July 2021 study by the UCLA team, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, reported that UCLA’s SwabSeq lab performed more than 80,000 tests in less than two months, and that the testing proved highly accurate. To date, the laboratory has tested more than 250,000 specimens.

“Our results demonstrate the potential for SwabSeq to be used for COVID-19 and emerging viruses on an unprecedented scale,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Valerie Arboleda, an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the Geffen School of Medicine. “Its flexible protocol can rapidly scale up testing and provide a solution to the need for population-wide testing to stem future pandemics.”

The contract was funded in part by the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative with funds from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health. Other funding is being provided by the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund through the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.