Tech

Alphabet's Verily builds its own lab to speed up coronavirus test results

Key Points
  • Alphabet's life sciences company Verily has developed its own lab focused on Covid-19 testing. 
  • Verily's goal is to speed up the time it takes for people to get results from their coronavirus tests. 
  • The lab will be based in South San Francisco.
Cooper Neill | Reuters

Alphabet's health and life sciences company Verily has developed its own lab focused on coronavirus tests. 

The company shared in a blog post on Tuesday that it established the lab in South San Francisco, where it's headquartered. Verily said that the lab is CLIA-certified, meaning it meets the standards required of clinical labs, and the goal is to help create more lab capacity for Covid-19 testing. 

As the blog post states, one of the reasons that Verily decided to build its own lab is to combat widespread delays across the country when it comes to coronavirus tests. Some people are waiting up to a week or even longer for the results, which renders them effectively useless. Verily, which has raised capital from Alphabet among other sources, has also developed a network of Covid-19 testing sites across California, which are geared to the general public. 

"Highly experienced labs, adept at handling high volumes of testing, have gone from a two-to-three day turnaround time for a molecular-based RT-PCR COVID-19 test to seven days or longer," said Verily's head of pathology Deb Hanks in the blog post.

Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests are considered the most accurate on the market, but labs across the country can't access them quickly enough. Companies are also working on developing new forms of rapid tests, which may also be more affordable, but might not meet the same standards around sensitivity and specificity as the PCR tests. (Still, experts say, there may be an important role for them.

Verily said it will use technology from ThermoFisher Scientific's‎ TaqPath test kit, which has been authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is also exploring, like many other labs, using pooled testing, which involves increasing testing capacity by combining batches of samples. 

Verily isn't the only technology company to build out its own lab testing capabilities. Amazon is also developing its own labs to test its warehouse workers following outbreaks at its facilities in New York, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Oregon, among other states. An Amazon spokesperson told CNBC in June that the company began its Covid-19 testing pilot program at the time.

Still, these tech companies might face challenges shared by other commercial labs. There are widespread shortages of re-agents, a mixture that's used in chemical analysis, for their platforms and test kits. Other hospital and commercial labs are also reporting struggles to access basic plastic disposables, like tips and tubes, which are in short supply. 

All of that has created big problems across the board when it comes to public health reporting and surveillance.

From its perspective, Verily notes that part of the reason that these delays are problematic is that it makes it more challenging for workers to return to offices. If an employee is waiting a week for a result, they might choose to stay home to avoid exposing others. It also holds back progress when it comes to research and development around new potential treatments for the virus because infected individuals aren't identified "quickly enough," Hanks wrote. 

Verily said it can run several thousand tests per day, and it is primarily focusing on its customers that are using its "Healthy at Work" service, which is geared to helping companies get people safely back to offices. 

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