Lenexa company ramps up saliva testing for COVID-19

Lab gives a behind-the-scenes look at efforts
Clinical Reference Laboratory
Posted at 6:09 PM, Aug 31, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-01 09:51:10-04

LENEXA, Kan. — Clinical Reference Laboratory in Lenexa is working around the clock, testing up to 6,000 saliva samples each day for COVID-19.

"It's been unprecedented, really," said Robert Thompson, chief executive officer of Clinical Reference Laboratory.

It takes three steps to check the saliva for the virus, taking five hours to complete.

"In order to meet our scaling, we are pooling samples. So we are taking a little bit from five saliva samples and putting them into one well," said Heather Fehling, chief scientific officer of molecular diagnostics.

Next, it's off to another machine, where scientists "purify" the virus from the saliva, Fehling said.

"(I)t's really taking the needle out of a haystack. We are taking out all the junk that is in the saliva, making it a pure sample," Fehling said.

The most important and last step is testing the saliva for the coronavirus.

"We are making lots of copies of the virus in order to identify it. We are running that on a PCR instrument," Fehling said.

Once it's done, the results pop up on a computer next to the machine. If one group comes back with a positive result, a scientist will go back and test those five samples individually.

Results can show up within as little as 14 hours, but it typically takes 24 to 48 hours to get something back.

"It goes and sends a notification to the client as well as the individual for our app," Fehling said.

Scientists are testing kits from all over Kansas and Missouri, including from universities like the University of Kansas and Emporia State University. But now, the company also is branching out and will do tests for the Los Angeles School District.

"They just give you a vial and tell you to spit in it and fill in that much or whatever," said Mather Saladin, a senior at KU.

Saladin took this test before going back to in-person classes and he said he would rather do this test than alternatives.

"It was pretty easy. I don't know what they could have done to make it any better," Saladin said.

But these tests aren't the only thing the lab is working on. Clinical Reference Laboratory is hoping to have the ability to test saliva for COVID-19 and the flu at the same time by the end of the year.

"One of the questions is if someone tests negative for COVID, they are like what do I have? Do I have the flu? What is it?" Fehling said. "Our hope is to create a multi-plex test that can look at other infectious diseases in the sample and give a more complete picture for that patient."

These scientists said they do all this work to save lives.

"As a scientist, this is your dream, to actually be able to help people," Fehling said. "So it's been really rewarding, I know for myself as well as our staff, to be able to really make an impact here in a public health sense."