From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, testing — or a lack thereof — has been at the center of the conversation.
One of the bottlenecks preventing wide scale testing in certain areas, including upstate New York, was the lack of testing facilities. A local biotechnology company now hopes to change that reality and provide Ithaca with same-day testing results.
The Food and Drug Administration gave Rheonix, housed in Cornell’s Business and Technology Park, approval for an automated testing system for SARS-CoV-2. The COVID-19 MDx Assay — Rheonix’s testing procedure — will expedite the return time on test results, allowing Cayuga Medical Center to process tests the same day as opposed to waiting up to five days.
All COVID-19 tests on the market perform the same service, detecting genetic material unique to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, but what differentiates these tests is the delivery, according to Rheonix founder and CEO Greg Galvin M.S. ‘82, Ph.D ‘84, MBA ‘93. Rheonix’s test is unique in its practicality for smaller communities, like Ithaca, because of its simplicity and low cost – which is a result of the localization of the technology and the fact that the technology does not require a technician after the samples have been loaded.
“There are one-test-at-a-time systems that are designed for point of care, there are large central laboratory instruments that can process samples in the thousands per hour and we’re positioned in the middle,” Galvin said. “It’s very low cost and very easy to use, it doesn’t require any particular skill to use to run it.”
Rheonix uses locally-housed technology to conduct the tests, as two of the company’s five machines are located at Cayuga Medical Center. Now, Cayuga Medical Center no longer needs to send its tests to New York State’s centralized testing locations, shortening the time patients need to wait to receive test results.
The value of same day testing is two-fold, reducing both the stress of patients and the use of valuable medical resources. With shorter wait times, patients are alleviated of the stress of not knowing whether they are spreading the virus, Galvin said.
“We consume a lot of our medical care resources while waiting,” Galvin said.
Those waiting for test results must be isolated and receive daily check-ins from the department of health workers. But, those that are symptomatic and waiting for test results stay in the hospital and take up scarce resources and space in the hospital, which can cause healthcare shortages.
“It significantly reduces the healthcare resources consumed by getting them an answer sooner rather than later,” Galvin said.
While reopening strategies have been widely debated, one consistent factor among all of the proposed strategies has been wide scale testing, specifically antibody testing. The science is still out on whether the presence of antibodies can make a person immune to COVID-19, according to Galvin.
While the presence of antibodies provides immunity for other viral infections, like measles, it is unclear that this applies to COVID-19. If antibodies don’t confer immunity, then increasing the capacity for diagnostic tests, like Rheonix’s test, will be critical.
“If there isn’t significant immunity we have to be doing actual virus testing, like our instrument does. We believe at least from what we can see at the moment that we will be an integral part of a reopening strategy,” Galvin said.
Since Rheonix is a small company without connection to large manufacturing supply chains, it is limited in its capacity to produce tests. Instead, the company focuses on supplying tests to hospitals in the Ithaca area. As manufacturing capabilities increase, the company hopes to roll out tests to other hospitals in central New York, which Galvin described as an expanding “concentric circle around Ithaca”.
As a long time resident of Ithaca, the ability for Galvin to give back to his community was fulfilling both personally and for the company.
“A pandemic response wasn’t part of our business plan for 2020, but it was extremely motivating and ultimately satisfying to be able to develop this resource here and see it put into use right here,” Galvin said.