Identifying COVID-19: A look at a lab that tests for the virus

Dr. Shannon Morgan, a public health microbiologist-I with the Alaska State Virology Lab in Fairbanks works to amplify specimens, looking for COVID-19. (John Dougherty/KTVF)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) As more and more people are tested for the coronavirus, lab technicians and microbiologists at the Alaska State Virology Lab in Fairbanks are busy processing the specimens.

To get a sample, doctors or nurses swab a patient’s nose or throat and then send the sample to one of the two state labs. There is one lab in Anchorage and another in Fairbanks.

Once the lab gets the sample, they organize it and then send it to a lab technician to extract the RNA from the specimen.

"After we obtain the throat swab, we transfer the specimen to a standardized tube that makes it more easy to manipulate for our testing downstream -- which is the extraction of the RNA and the subsequent amplification of that RNA to detect whether we have a positive coronavirus specimen," said Chris Coe, Laboratory Technician.

After the specimen is extracted, a microbiologist works with the specimen to create a master mix that allows them to test for the presence of the virus.

"We take the samples with a master mix that has an enzyme that helps to catalyze a reaction. That reaction is actually trying to amplify, or make more, of the viral target we are looking for," said Nisha Fowler, a Public Health Microbiologist II.

A machine runs the test against controls to see if any of the specimens are positive. The total process -- from receiving the test until getting the results -- takes around four hours.

As more and more people are being tested, the lab says they are preparing to stay busy. Governor Dunleavy has approved a temporary position for a microbiologist to help with testing.

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