State allocates $4.3 million to the UO for COVID-19 test processing

The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board recently approved $4.3 million for a major expansion of the UO’s COVID-19 Monitoring and Assessment Program, which should more than double the state’s testing capacity by the start of 2021.

The funding will allow the university to buy advanced analysis equipment to be placed in the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. The funding is meant to strengthen the partnerships among state entities combating COVID-19.

With faster and increased test processing capacity, the UO will enable the Oregon Health Authority and local public health officials to better respond to surges in the spread of the virus, to test vulnerable populations more frequently, and to more quickly identify people who may be infectious so they can be isolated, UO officials said.

The funding comes primarily from federal COVID-19 response funds. The state also approved a $300,000 investment in Oregon State University’s veterinary lab to expand COVID-19 testing capacity in Corvallis.

Currently the state’s testing capacity is about 6,800 samples per day. The project would increase that to at least 17,000 per day by Jan. 1, 2021.

As the project scales up, the UO will work with public health partners to expand testing capacity around the state, including local testing for at-risk and disadvantaged populations.

While UO will likely see some benefits from economies of scale, the funds were not intended to cover the university’s testing needs.

The Oregon Health Authority approached UO faculty members because of their expertise in genomics and ability to implement next-generation sequencing technology, which uses precise genome sequencing equipment that accelerates test volume, requires smaller amounts of reagents and is much more cost effective.

“We want to do a lot of high-volume, low-cost, highly accurate testing,” said Cassandra Moseley, the UO’s interim vice president for research and innovation.

Next-generation sequencing technology allows thousands of samples to be tested for coronavirus simultaneously at low cost, using both saliva samples and nasal swabs that can be collected comfortably from the front of the nostril. The sequencers are typically are available only at research universities, including the UO.

The UO’S COVID-19 Monitoring and Assessment Program, known as MAP, was established last spring after the pandemic hit Oregon and the rest of the country. UO efforts to begin increasing testing started with a partnership with McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield that enabled the hospital to process tests using equipment provided by the UO.

The Emergency Board will likely meet later this fall to consider allocating additional funds for the expanded testing. The Oregon Health Authority will lead the work on designing and implementing statewide testing strategies.