Expanding COVID-19 testing with free self-testing vending machines

Sept. 22, 2021

With a new $13.3 million contract from the National Institutes of Health’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics initiative, or RADx, will enable the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA to expand its capacity to process COVID-19 tests, including providing free self-tests in vending machines.

UCLA’s diagnostic laboratory will be able to process up to 150,000 COVID-19 tests per day using SwabSeq, a sequencing technology developed at UCLA. The technology pools thousands of saliva samples and returns individual test results in less than 24 hours.

UCLA researchers pioneered the technology in April 2020 in collaboration with Octant, a startup company founded at UCLA, and the SwabSeq laboratory opened for business on campus in October 2020. SwabSeq is quicker and less expensive than the widely used polymerase chain reaction method, which requires a secondary process that limits the number of daily tests a lab can perform.

“UCLA Health relies on the SwabSeq platform to regularly test its health care workforce,” said Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health and CEO of UCLA Hospital System.

SwabSeq tests are already in use by UCLA faculty, staff and students returning to campus for the 2021–22 academic year. UCLA is encouraging members of the campus community to test themselves for COVID-19 weekly using free kits, which are available from a dozen vending machines located throughout the campus.

After depositing their completed SwabSeq tests in collection bins next to the vending machines, users are notified by email or text when their results are available from a secure website.

SwabSeq attaches a piece of DNA that acts like a molecular “bar code” to each person’s saliva sample, allowing scientists to combine large batches of samples together in a sequencing machine and rapidly identify those that have the virus.

The testing method, which was one of the first DNA-sequencing methods to receive emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, can also be applied to nasal COVID-19 testing samples.

A July 2021 study by the UCLA team, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, reported that UCLA’s SwabSeq lab performed more than 80,000 tests in less than two months, and that the testing proved highly accurate. To date, the laboratory has tested more than 250,000 specimens.

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