March 14, 2020

State’s COVID-19 testing capacity gets boost from private lab

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The state’s testing capacity for COVID-19, a type of coronavirus, has expanded now that the private company TriCore Reference Laboratories is joining the effort. The governor’s office announced the expanded capacity Thursday afternoon.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state has the capacity for testing 2,400 individuals for COVID-19 during a Wednesday press conference. With TriCore on board, the state now has more capacity to test individuals for the virus, though it’s unclear how many tests this has added to the state’s capacity.

TriCore is now performing molecular diagnostic tests of respiratory specimens for COVID-19 virus. Those tests have been provided under the FDA Emergency Use Authorization. 

Michael W. Edwards, Ph.D., HCLD (ABB), director for the DOH’s Scientific Laboratory Division, said the two labs have been working together for weeks to establish TriCore’s testing capabilities.

“We are excited for Tricore to begin COVID-19 testing,” Edwards said in a statement. “The capacity to test in New Mexico is significantly increased to meet future demand with Tricore testing.”

New Mexico DOH spokesperson David Morgan told NM Political Report in an email that the state’s testing capabilities for COVID-19 is “continuing to develop daily, and frankly increase,” but did not offer an updated number of tests available.

Some clarity on the testing kit confusion

Confusion over the availability of testing kits in the United States — and an early blunder involving faulty tests — has fueled concerns from the public that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has mishandled its response to the pandemic.

The first batch of testing kits distributed by the CDC to state health departments earlier this year were faulty. Morgan said New Mexico received the faulty test kits but did not use any to test for COVID-19.

“There were issues with one of the components. Once changes were made by CDC and FDA, we were able to run the test successfully,” Morgan said.

Currently, there is only one effective and federally-approved test that can detect the presence of COVID-19. That test is manufactured by IDT, an Iowa-based biotechnology firm that was the first to receive CDC emergency use authorization. The CDC provides those tests to state health departments, while IDT has been providing tests to other clinical labs “directly,” Morgan said.

“As the pandemic evolves, it’s likely more companies [will] develop tests and bring them to market,” he said.

At least three other organizations have now received CDC authorization for manufacturing test kits for COVID-19.

Testing criteria evolving

Initially, the CDC set criteria for COVID-19 tests that limited recipients to individuals in the U.S. who were experiencing symptoms of the virus and who had traveled to specific areas in the past two weeks. But the state’s current criteria is a bit more broad.

“People with respiratory infection symptoms are being tested. Patients do not need a history of travel or contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to be approved for testing,” Morgan said. He added that individuals with fever and cough and/or shortness of breath, and who have traveled to countries designated as Level 3 or Level 2 on the Travel Health Notice by the CDC, and those who have been in contact with confirmed cases, are the highest priority for testing.

All COVID-19 testing in New Mexico is conducted at the DOH Scientific Laboratory, located in Albuquerque. Morgan said that any physician within the state can request testing, and will ship specimens to the Albuquerque lab.

Protocol requires the state to conduct its own testing, and then send the samples to the CDC for confirmation. Samples from the state that test positive are reported as “presumptive positive” until the CDC can confirm the result. But Morgan said the state’s test and the CDC test are the same.

“The specimens are sent to CDC as part of the original FDA authorization,” Morgan said. “As more testing data becomes available, we anticipate that this requirement will eventually be lifted.”