When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the US, the young biotech company Verve Therapeutics was only months away from a crucial development: studies in animals of its gene-editing approach to lowering cholesterol, which would lead to it it is heralded as a potential "cure for the heart disease."
But managing director Dr. Sekar Kathiresan faced a problem: this is not the type of work you can do at home.
"Our work involves working in cells and animal models," said Kathiresan.
Initially, his company used tools like social distancing, hand hygiene, masks, and a symptom questionnaire to help keep workers safe in the laboratories.
"But early on in the pandemic it became very clear that about 40% of people are asymptomatic when they develop Covid," said Kathiresan, who is also a preventive cardiologist and geneticist. "You cannot intercept these people with a symptom questionnaire. The only way to identify these asymptomatic people before they spread the disease in the workplace is to do regular surveillance tests."
It wasn't clear how to do these types of tests. In March, even people who were sick with Covid-19 could not get a test.
A lab technician at Verve Therapeutics
Kathiresan said he had to make sure his company could catch potential infections that could go undetected in order to keep his employees healthy. So he tapped his connections. Verve's offices are located in the middle of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the heart of the global biotechnology industry. Kathiresan and some biotech CEOs in the area came together to see if they could set up a testing infrastructure to keep their employees safe while they continue to work in laboratories to develop potential drugs.
They started with the Broad Institute, a nonprofit just around the corner in Cambridge that happens to be one of the world's largest genomic research centers. Prior to founding Verve, Kathiresan led Broad's cardiovascular disease initiative. He knew the institute was working to get approval of a Covid test from the Food and Drug Administration, so he reached out to Stacey Gabriel, Senior Director of the Genomics Platform.
"As the pandemic started and testing in local hospitals and the surrounding area was taking off so slowly, one of the faculty at the Broad Institute, an infectious disease doctor from Brigham and Women & # 39; s, Deborah Hung, came to me and said: & # 39; You have a CLIA lab. You have an incredible amount of automation and expertise in high throughput processes. Could you pass this test? "" Gabriel remembered. “And that really was the beginning of all of this. That was the second week of March. "
The changes to improve the clinical laboratory require that a laboratory be certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services before accepting samples for diagnostic testing.
A laboratory at the Broad Institute
The Broad team developed their own test and it took about two weeks to convert a lab from a lab that focused on genome sequencing to a lab with Covid diagnostics. Initially, the lab was able to run 1,000 tests per day, then ramped up to 10,000 and now has tools that can run approximately 35,000 tests per day.
Its first users were hospitals like Brigham and Women & # 39; s and Mass General. A pilot project started in early April to test the city of Cambridge's nursing homes.
"It was a couple of thousand tests," said Gabriel. "We found around 200 infected people between residents and staff that the nursing homes and Cambridge were able to respond to."
The Broad has since hired 145 people to help with Covid testing. The company is expanding into Massachusetts community health centers, offering tests for colleges and universities like Harvard.
Kathiresan calls Gabriel "one of the unsung heroes of this pandemic" in the local community.
To simplify the testing process, he reached out to Color, a Bay Area health technology company that had done testing on the West Coast and now provides about two-thirds of the testing for the city of San Francisco. Like Broad, Color had seen the test jams from across the coast at the start of the pandemic.
"We saw that there was a big crisis," said Caroline Savello, Color's chief commercial officer. "Tests are included in traditional health systems."
Color began both with its own testing and by providing infrastructure that Savello says can be layered on top of other labs like the Broad's. It streamlines the test process through fully digital appointment scheduling and results notification and operates test sites.
Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, Verve Therapeutics
In Cambridge, those locations are two trailers from Alexandria Real Estate, the largest landlord of biotech companies, in a parking lot at the biotech hub in Kendall Square. More than 50 biotech companies are now part of the test group. The mean turnaround time for the results is 12 hours. The tests cost $ 80 each.
Verve's staff have been tested once a week and have now moved twice a week as the Boston area will soon see many students returning and infections in Massachusetts have increased slightly, Kathiresan said.
According to data from the Covid Tracking Project, a data source operated by journalists in the Atlantic, Massachusetts' seven-day average in new daily cases rose 90% to 423 in early August from its lows in early July.
"That was an expense, I think it was worth it," said Kathiresan. "I can't think of a better way to use resources than to make the work environment as safe as possible."
And he noted, "We've all achieved our research and development milestones."
– CNBC's Harriet Taylor contributed to this report.