'Shortages at every turn:' Duke, UNC labs jump in to make coronavirus test as states struggle to keep up

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Friday, March 13, 2020
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State and local health leaders say they need more coronavirus test kits to get a handle on the extent of the outbreak.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- State and local health leaders say they need more novel coronavirus test kits to get a handle on the extent of the outbreak.

"One of the biggest challenges, as people have been hearing, is our limitation in testing," said Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, chief medical officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a news conference Thursday. "We've been working around the clock and thinking about creative ways through public and private partnerships to increase our testing ability."

At the state lab here and across the country, an agent is missing from the kits that allows technicians to take genetic material out of the virus so they can run the test.

RELATED: 8th Wake County resident tests positive for coronavirus

Once the lab gets more of this chemical, the state will be able to run more tests. Currently, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state has the supplies to run 700 tests--up from 250 on Wednesday.

In the meantime, LabCorp is working on a test that wouldn't need the limiting agent, state health officials said. Duke and UNC are also developing a test that should be out within weeks.

"Despite perception and the way it appears, vendors, manufacturers and labs are moving at a pace that is unprecedented to what we've done in the past," said Dr. Christopher Polage, associate professor and medical director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at Duke. "I'm confident we here in North Carolina can get through this. I'm confident we can get through this nationally and throughout the world."

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Dr. Polage though said it's unlike anything he's seen in his 15 years of work, he believes health systems around the country will have to make tough decisions about who they're going to test and who they don't for a while.

Watch Dr. Polage's full interview here:

"We actually, in order to begin performing testing, have needed to procure equipment and ingredients that are necessary to perform all of this and what we've faced is really shortages, I'd say it's fair to say, at every turn that we make," Dr. Polage said. "Ingredients we've faced shortages and even the equipment."

Duke said it didn't even have the equipment to do testing for COVID-19--the disease caused by the novel coronavirus--when the kits were rolled out by the CDC. Dr. Polage said the type of equipment is set up for state health and Department of Defense labs, not for clinical ones. But he said new testing methods should be out in a few weeks time.

"This is perhaps unprecedented but we've had other outbreaks and epidemics in the past and I think we'll get through this," he said.

WATCH: ABC11 Coronavirus coverage

Currently, at least 15 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in North Carolina. Fourteen of those cases are considered "presumptive positive," meaning they haven't been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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