Testing on a Grand Scale

Rutgers genomicist Andrew I. Brooks is the chief operating officer and  director of technology development at RUCDR
Rutgers genomicist Andrew I. Brooks is the chief operating officer and director of technology development at RUCDR, which created the new test that reduces the exposure of health care professionals to the coronavirus.
Photography by Nick Romanenko

Rutgers creates a test for COVID-19, with the promise of evaluating tens of thousands of samples daily.

Editor's Note: Rutgers Magazine mourns the death of Andrew Brooks who passed away unexpectedly on January 23, 2021. Brooks, 51, led the effort to create the first coronavirus saliva-based test that has helped fight the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read more about Brooks and his illustrious career.

— David W. Major

New hope arose for COVID-19 testing on April 11 when Rutgers’ RUCDR Infinite Biologics—the world’s largest university-based cell and DNA repository—learned that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted emergency use authorization for RUCDR’s new test for COVID-19, one that could be capable of testing as many as tens of thousands of samples daily.

The test, relying on collecting a saliva sample in a tube, doesn’t require a medical provider to take a nasal or throat swab sample, reducing the exposure of health care professionals to the virus and allowing for much broader population screening.

Soon after the team received FDA notification, the White House COVID-19 testing task force called Rutgers genomicist Andrew I. Brooks, chief operating officer and director of technology development at RUCDR, to offer congratulations and support. Some of the world’s largest life sciences companies also reached out to discuss sharing knowledge. “We will work closely with these new partners, the FDA, and the White House task force to leverage everything Rutgers has to offer to not only help our community, but also make a global impact,” Brooks said.

“We can accept hundreds to thousands of samples for analysis per day now and potentially will be able to test tens of thousands of samples daily,” said Brooks, adding “saliva testing will help with the global shortage of swabs for sampling.” Saliva testing will also help people in quarantine learn when they are no longer infectious, most importantly health care workers who can return to work. By mid-April, the new test was being rolled out in New Jersey and other states and used at drive-through testing sites, long-term care facilities, and correctional facilities. In May, the FDA approved the test for at-home sample collection, a further breakthrough.

The test is based on a Nobel Prize-winning laboratory technique that makes millions of copies of the SARS-CoV-2 virus nucleic acid (in this case RNA) in a sample. RUCDR, part of Rutgers–New Brunswick, worked with long-time partner Accurate Diagnostic Labs, a large diagnostic testing company, to fast-track the validation and verification of the new testing methodologies. Partner Spectrum Solutions makes the saliva collection device.

“The test can help hospital-based and private physicians to accurately assess the infection status of more patients, with RUCDR Infinite Biologics doing the analysis,” said Rutgers geneticist Jay Tischfield, founder, chief executive officer, and scientific director of RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a unit of Rutgers’ Human Genetics Institute of New Jersey.