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College Labs Become Coronavirus Testing Facilities, Courtesy Of Student Volunteers


The huge need for coronavirus tests around the country has prompted several universities to turn their research labs into testing labs. As NPR's Lauren Sommer reports, professors and students have been drafted into the fight against coronavirus.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Life in a science lab can be pretty quiet - prep samples, run samples.

KATIE CABRAL: You know, normally when people are like, oh, they need someone in an emergency, it's usually not, like, a science grad student. But in this case, my particular qualifications are exactly what is needed.

SOMMER: Katie Cabral is a bioengineering Ph.D. student at the University of California, San Francisco. A few weeks ago, she got an email. UCSF and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a biomedical research collaborative, had started setting up their labs to run coronavirus tests for patients. They needed volunteers with lab experience.

CABRAL: So I was just sort of at home just sort of stressing about the world. And I think being able to come in and do something tangible to work towards this goal of increasing testing really - you just feel very important.

SOMMER: Cabral has done a few shifts now, helping process samples through machines that detect the virus's RNA, along with other student volunteers.

CABRAL: The graduate student who trained me on the liquid handling machine today started on Friday, so everything is moving extremely quickly.

SOMMER: The same is happening at the University of Washington. Their virology labs provided crucial testing for the Seattle area. Undergrad Peter Chen (ph) has been volunteering on the 6 a.m. shift, unpacking hundreds of samples that arrive every day.

PETER CHEN: Every single day, there's so much news about COVID-19. But like, really being able to participate and do something about it, like, I don't think it's every day that you get an opportunity like that.

JULIA SCHALETZKY: I am just astounded by the willingness of people to go the extra mile.

SOMMER: Julia Schaletzky is helping set up testing at UC Berkeley. In her normal job, she's executive director of the university's Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases. Coronavirus tests use special machines with a technology called PCR. They're common in university labs, and Berkeley professors quickly offered 30 of them.

SCHALETZKY: Technically, the challenge was very solvable for us, and that's why we and other academics all across the country got into this.

SOMMER: They also put out the call to students.

SCHALETZKY: We have 800 volunteers, so we had an overwhelming response.

SOMMER: Schaletzky says, in addition to volunteers, they're relying on donations and university funding to get testing going.

SCHALETZKY: In theory, we should have funding coming from the CDC and from the federal government for this. But I can't frankly say from my view in the trenches, it's nowhere to be seen.

SOMMER: But for now, she says, the only choice is to do everything they can.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Sommer
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
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