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State doesn't yet have 'ink' to complete Utah company's 50K COVID-19 tests — or others

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Updated - Mar. 19, 2020 at 12:17 p.m. | Posted - Mar. 18, 2020 at 4:19 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — The state doesn't yet have the "ink" necessary to complete the 50,000 COVID-19 tests a Utah company says it can manufacture each day, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said during a Wednesday conference call with the Utah tech community and other state politicians.

Salt Lake-based Co-Diagnostics created a stir after announcing that it can manufacture tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests a day that deliver results in about 90 minutes. And an FDA rule change put the company one step closer to doing so by recently authorizing the distribution of the test in the United States.

But the main thing slowing down tests of all kinds, including the tests Utah could get from Co-Diagnostics, is something called a reagent, Cox said. More specifically, an extractive reagent or extraction kit, said Nate Checketts, deputy director at the Utah Department of Health.

And Co-Diagnostics does not make extraction kits.

"That’s not their thing. It’s another (national) company that does that,” Cox explained. “(Co-Diagnostics) produces the printers, and you need the ink for the printer.”

Unfortunately, the "ink" is in high demand everywhere.

The good news, however, is that Co-Diagnostics has been working to help the state obtain the extraction kits by connecting the government with a company that makes them, Checketts explained. In fact, Co-Diagnostics recently signed an order and wired the money for 10,000 extraction kits — though the state will eventually end up paying for those kits, he said.

When those extraction kits will arrive is still undetermined, according to Checketts. But even when they do arrive, that doesn't mean the state can just suddenly test 10,000 people, he explained.

"The extraction reagents have been our bottleneck, but as soon as we address that one, we're going to run up against other things," Checketts said. "We only have a certain number of machines working in the state that can be able to do these different steps. We only have a certain number of staff that are trained ... to do these tests."

The health department, ARUP and Intermountain labs that do these tests can only do about 300 or 400 a day, though Checketts said he's hopeful that will move to 1,000 by next week.

"So getting all of those extraction kits helps us keep moving along that growth pattern, but we will quickly bump up against some of these other limitations. So it's not like if we get 10,000 kits on Sunday, that Monday morning we'll open up the state park and 10,000 people should come down and get their tests," he said.

That's why the state is still prioritizing tests, including those for health care workers, people in the hospital and people leaving the hospital to go back to nursing homes.

The state has not yet bought any tests from Co-Diagnostics, Checketts confirmed, though that could quickly change. The state is not likely to buy all 50,000 tests Co-Diagnostics is manufacturing, however — a good portion of which the company is already selling in other locations.

Besides, it's not a lack of tests like the ones Co-Diagnostics makes that's slowing down the process, Checketts said.

The Utah tech community has been working closely with the public and nonprofit sector since COVID-19 took a turn last week, however, and is eager to find out how they can help. Checketts said he recently had a conversation with someone in the tech sector about what the community can best do to aid the state in increasing testing.

"I think what we're going to do is put together a resource list of what the state uses to get its job done and send that list out and let the community respond to it the best way it can," Checketts said.

The state's machines use very specific brands, Checketts added, and he is hoping that, by putting information out there, the tech community and others will respond to help procure what they need.

In fact, Silicon Slopes executive director Clint Betts announced a fund Wednesday to help fight the virus in Utah.

The COVID-19 Community Response Fund can be found on the newly launched website slopesserves.com, which offers Utahns opportunities to donate money and supplies, as well as volunteer or simply stay informed.

The new fund will be used to “alleviate the devastation already being experienced as a result of this pandemic” by:

  • Providing medical supplies to health professionals and nonprofit workers, including masks, goggles, diapers, baby wipes and hand sanitizer, among other things
  • Supporting public health and K-12 education efforts
  • Funding and supporting FDA-approved COVID-19 test kits to accelerate the diagnosis of Utahns

On March 12, Betts roped CEOs of local tech companies into a conference call with local politicians, including Sen. Mitt Romney, and the tech and public sectors have been in close contact since then.

Silicon Slopes is hosting a virtual town hall every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 4 p.m. to talk about the virus with business and community leaders across the state. The fund was announced during Wednesday’s conference call, which was streamed live on Silicon Slopes' YouTube account.

Liesl Nielsen

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