In the two weeks since Quest Diagnostics began processing novel coronavirus samples in its infectious disease lab, the private medical company has increased its capacity to 25,000 tests per day in three labs across the country -- with plans to expand.
Quest, one of the nation’s top commercial laboratory companies, has dialed up testing as the pandemic increasingly infects American citizens.
“By the end of this week we’ll have close to a dozen laboratories that would be running this test, those laboratories will run throughout the United States, both on the East Coast as well as on the West Coast,” Quest Diagnostics CEO Steve Rusckowski said in an interview with ABC News.
Quest serves about half of the physicians and hospitals in the U.S., and about one-third of Americans every year, according to Rusckowski, but may be best known for picking up specimens from doctor’s offices and medical facilities and taking them to their labs for testing.
They also have their own testing centers throughout the country, but are not authorized to do any coronavirus testing in those offices.
Quest’s journey to helping aid in the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States began seven weeks ago when the Food and Drug Administration authorized the commercial lab company to move forward with developing and running its own test, under a temporary emergency authorization.
“When we heard from the FDA that we had the go-ahead to develop our own test on Feb. 29, we then had our development team -- these are M.D.s, Ph.D.’s -- work on the development of the assay and we had to actually test to make sure that that test would work -- it’s called a validation process -- so we were bringing in some of the virus from South Korea,” Rusckowski told ABC News.
After Quest’s first lab test was validated using specimens of the COVID-19 virus from South Korea, the test was then brought to one of Quest’s major facilities in San Juan Capistrano, California, where they began processing tests widely on March 9.
“Since that point, we have been expanding our capacity and we now have multiple sites up and running on the test and our capacity is about 25,000 tests per day,” Rusckowski said. In addition to their San Juan Capistrano lab, Quest is currently processing COVID-19 specimens for testing in lab facilities based in Chantilly, Virginia, and Marlborough, Massachusetts.
As it was developing the test, Quest was also working with its suppliers to develop automatic testing capability on a number of different testing platforms.
“With that automated test in parallel with what we do ourselves -- this allows us to greatly expand our capacity over the last several weeks,” Rusckowski said. He added that Quest has brought the automated testing into 10 different company facilities so far.
Rusckowski joined leaders of major companies like CVS, Walmart and Walgreens at a press conference in the White House's Rose Garden on March 13, alongside federal public health officials, as President Donald Trump officially declared a national emergency in the U.S. due to the domestic COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
The White House has faced criticism for being slow to roll out testing. Trump said he did not take responsibility for the lack of available testing early in the epidemic at the same Rose Garden event despite earlier saying any American who needed a test could get one.
"I don't take responsibility at all because we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time,” he told reporters. “It wasn't meant for this kind of an event with the kind of numbers that we're talking about."
Rusckowski told ABC News that he and other corporate leaders were invited to the White House to speak with Trump and members of his administration "simply about what we could do to ramp up the ability for Americans to get tested."
Over the course of a few days, he said the group worked through "bringing retailers together with the laboratories and understanding how we can leverage that retail presence [of stores like Walmart, Walgreens, CVS and Target] and looking at using their real estate -- specifically their parking lots -- along with health care workers to do a better job with getting specimens collected so they could them bring those specimens into the laboratories."
Quest and the retailers also worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get more specimen collection centers through the U.S., including drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites, Rusckowski said.
"The way it works for a drive-thru testing site is we’ll coordinate with whomever is running that site and it might be a state, it might be a private organization and it might be FEMA, and we’ll work with each of those organizations to understand who will actually do the specimen collections and then also where we would pick up specimens and at what time," Rusckowski said.
When those specimens are collected and shuttled to a Quest facility for testing, the commercial lab said its typical turnaround is four to five days.
Rusckowski said as Quest brings that capacity closer to where patients are being tested, it should quicken the turnaround. However, he added, "the other concern that we have is that as demand continues to grow in some places, the time frame to get results might expand beyond the number we have said. It's hard to predict that, but we’re trying to keep up with the demand as we speak."