Grand Rapids genetic lab pioneers saliva-based COVID-19 tests

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Two MassARRAY machines processing COVID-19 samples. The machines identify the presence of viral RNA to detect coronavirus. Courtesy Arctic Medical Labs

Arctic Medical Labs pioneered an alternative to nasal swab COVID-19 testing in the form of pooled saliva test kits.

The group, based in the American Seating Building in Grand Rapids, has been running COVID-19 tests since last year and has done extensive testing in schools — at Godfrey Lee with traditional diagnostic testing for at-risk patients — since last fall. The group also has done pooled testing together with the Kent County Health Department.

Arctic Medical Labs was originally established to provide genetic testing for people who suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Dr. Brent Zanke, M.D., director of Arctic Labs, said the group has contributed significant research in that field. Specifically, Arctic Labs discovered vitamins advertised for AMD could actually worsen the condition for patients with a particular genetic background.

“When COVID hit, obviously doctors’ offices had to shut down, and there was no need for that type of testing,” Zanke said. “We recognized the equipment and people we had could be retrained for COVID testing. One thing we recognized straight away was sticking a swab up someone’s nose is really unpleasant.”

Arctic Labs’ saliva-based pooled testing received FDA emergency use authorization, meaning the laboratory performing this test has validation data to support offering this test; it has not been approved or cleared by the FDA. The test is only authorized for coronavirus detection and not for any other virus or pathogen.

Zanke said the amount of coronavirus that exists in saliva is quite high, and saliva testing is less invasive, making it ideal for school-aged children and health care workers who have to be consistently tested.

Arctic Labs supplies businesses and other clients with collection tubes, the same ones used by 23andMe for DNA testing. The group then collects the tubes, and results are typically available in one or two days.

Pooled testing allows one to collect multiple samples — usually in pools of 10 people — at once. If the pool tests positive, Arctic Labs can go back to that original pool of 10 people with a follow-up diagnostic test.

No laboratory test is 100% accurate. A positive test is a strong indication the sample received is from someone infected, but there is some possibility of a false negative result due to test performance or sample contamination issues.

“In order to fix the problem of people being asymptomatic and testing negative by rapid antigen tests, we get rapid results from a pool of 10 people, and if the pool tests positive, we can find in the next day who in that pool is positive,” Zanke said.

Pooled testing also is useful for office workplaces, sporting events or anywhere with a high volume of people. Arctic Labs has run about 70,000 pooled saliva tests since the beginning of the pandemic.

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