With rising demand, Berkeley lab cranks out thousands of PCR tests a day

The spread of the omicron variant has led to an increased demand not inly for at-home rapid antigen tests, but also for the more sensitive PCR tests which are processed at labs. 

Dr. Petros Giannikopoulos, director of the Innovative Genomics Institute's clinical testing lab, says they have seen an increase in samples coming in from UC Berkeley and community clinics such as Lifelong Medical and Roots Clinics. 

"We can process over 4,000 samples a day," Giannikopoulos said. "What arrives is hundreds and hundreds of samples at once. The team examines every sample to make sure there are no spills. We have a fully automated laboratory, so robots do the all the work. These machines that do all the work, they're called liquid handlers. They basically process these hundreds of samples that are on these plates." 

The PCR or polymerase chain reaction tests can detect even small amounts of the coronavirus SARS-CoV2 by amplifying the samples as many as 35 times.

"That one copy becomes two copies, then two becomes four and four becomes eight," said Giannikopoulos. "Our average turnaround time is about 24 hours. Most PCR tests will turn them around in a day or two."

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But not all labs have the same barcoding system or automation as the IGI lab and therefore have to process identification labels and sample tubes by hand. That is causing some labs to have delays as long as three to seven days in reporting results. 

"If personnel are out sick and you're down a person, that can also generate delays," said Giannikopoulos.

Volunteers at West Oakland's Comunity Christian Church of Christ sag their pop-up COVID clinic has drawn between 500-1,000 people a day with lines around the block.

"It put a lot of strain on every sector, on the testers, the test kits, on the transporters, on the testing site to make sure they get the test results back," said Rev. Lawrence VanHook, the Lead Pastor, who says they plan another clinic on Wednesday.

"The numbers have gone through the roof since right before Christmas," said Titus VanHook, a volunteer, "The turnaround time has gone from one day to around two days average, then three days average and now with the numbers it's about five to seven days." 

He says the church samples are being sent to a lab in southern California.

Many labs are hoping to catch up in the coming week and reduce reporting delays. 

Most community COVID PCR tests are free or covered by insurance.