Under the guidance of Melissa Henriksen, the Be SAFE Lab’s project manager, the lab played a critical role in identifying a dramatic spike in positive COVID cases earlier this month, spread widely both on and off Grounds. The lab’s ability to quickly process test samples collected from four sites on Grounds and to relay those test results to University leadership led to a series of temporary restrictions on activities on Grounds announced on Feb. 19. By last Friday, after the lab reported a measurable decline in the number of positive COVID cases and in the positivity rate among students, faculty and staff tested, UVA lifted most of those restrictions.
“Many faculty, staff and researchers came together to help our saliva screening effort at UVA this year,” said Melur “Ram” Ramasubramanian, the University’s vice president for research. “Acquiring John Campbell’s robot allowed us to get our lab up and running more quickly, and to get to our goal of processing 3,500 samples a day. Our lab now offers COVID-19 testing to all students once a week, helping to stop the spread of the virus in our community.”
Starting From Scratch
UVA’s effort to build its own COVID-testing lab for the University community began last August. Modeling its effort after the testing program at the University of Illinois, UVA selected a saliva-based, polymerase chain reaction test. It was considered a reliable option that was less expensive and less invasive option than nasal swabs.
The director for university engagement at UVA’s Applied Research Institute, Henriksen has a Ph.D. in biological chemistry and has run two of her own research labs at UVA, as well as one previously at Fordham University. Looking back at the whirlwind six weeks that transformed the selected space – most of which was formerly an OB/GYN billing office – into a working lab, Henriksen said that it seemed like “the most intense thing I’ve ever been involved with.”