Labs in Italy Moved Fast to Develop COVID-19 Tests

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Part One in a Series

ITALY HAS ONE OF THE WORLD’S SEVEREST OUTBREAKS OF COVID-19 INFECTIONS, based on the number of cases and the mortality rate. In response, clinical laboratories there moved quickly to launch laboratory-developed tests and to increase the volume of COVID-19 tests that they could run each day.

For Mario Plebani, MD, Professor of Clinical Biochemistry and Clinical Molecular Biology at the School of Medicine, University of Padova, healthcare professionals have much to learn about the virus and the steps the Italian healthcare system could have taken to respond more effectively. Plebani also is the Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine and co-Editor-in-Chief of Diagnosis.

“There are many things we have yet to understand about this novel coronavirus,” Plebani said in an interview with The Dark Report on March 25. “It was totally unexpected, which meant that our health system was not prepared.” Plebani’s Veneto region in northern Italy is next to Lombardy where on Feb. 20, a young man was admitted to a hospital and diagnosed with COVID-19.

“In the next 24 hours there were 36 more cases, none of whom had contact with the first patient or with anyone known to have COVID-19. This was the beginning of one of the largest and most serious clusters of COVID-19 in the world,” the Journal of the American Medical Association reported.

“In our University Hospital, the microbiology department and my laboratory moved fast to develop a home-brew test for SARS-CoV-2,” Plebani said. “This was a manual test, however, and as the number of patients needing testing increased rapidly, we started using automated tests.

“Currently we can perform about 2,500 tests daily. By next week, with new automation, we will be able to perform 3,500 COVID-19 tests daily,” he added.

To date, University Hospital, where Plebani works, has not experienced problems with supply shortages. “Fortunately, personal protective equipment has been ensured up to now,” he commented. “In our hospital, everyone has the masks, gloves, and other safety equipment they need. We know that the problem is increasing and are worried about having enough supplies in the future.”

Drive-Up, Home Collections

When health officials noticed how quickly the virus spread among hospitalized patients, they isolated infected individuals at home and collected specimens there.

“With the help of the Red Cross, we can now do home visits to collect specimens,” noted Plebani. “The Red Cross also is helping to operate drive-up specimen collection centers. We want to follow this strategy to increase testing without moving patients to the hospital.”

In addition to home collections, Plebani is following the development of serology tests for the virus. “As serological tests become available, it will help our labs understand more about this novel coronavirus outbreak,” he explained. “These tests will help us understand how many asymptomatic subjects were infected but also stayed healthy.”

Contact Mario Plebani, MD, at mario.plebani@unipd.it.

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