JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville lab has switched gears to help in the nationwide fight against COVID-19.
Within the past week, the Southside lab, which normally does cancer biopsies and disease screening, converted to build COVID-19 test kits to ship across the country to keep up with demand. The plans had been in the works since the beginning of the crisis.
The office building near J. Turner Butler Boulevard and Interstate 95 might not look like the frontlines, but those working in it say it is a life-saving operation.
Scientists are putting together COVID-19 test kits to keep up with the demand from the coronavirus pandemic.
“You cannot just flip a switch and do millions more tests a day that you were normally doing as laboratories,” said Aurora Diagnostics Vice President of Operations Wes Bernhardt. “It’s not possible. So we had to do is get creative here and turn this laboratory into a production site.”
Bernhardt and the team at Sonic Healthcare Bernhardt Labs in Jacksonville manufactured more than 130,000 in the first week of the project.
In the future, employees are planning on producing 150,000 a week, for a total of at least 1.3 million.
The team is working around the clock in shifts, so the lab is producing kits 24/7. The conversion from a lab to a vital part of the supply chain wasn’t difficult, Bernhardt said, because employees were already trained and the facility is sterile and government approved.
The scientists and lab technicians take plastic vials, fill them with a reagent used to preserve virus, label them, refrigerate them and ship them across the country.
“We are using everybody internally to make sure we are optimizing our team at its fullest capacity,” said General Manager Summer Hartig.
The lab, founded by Bernhardt’s father, has been running pathology tests, screening for cancers and other diseases, since the 1980s and still is. That role hasn’t stopped despite the nationwide shutdown.
But the scientists are filling the need during the pandemic, to keep the United States supplied.
“We clear up the bottleneck, get the testing kits out. The more people we can get testing done, the better. Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and Dr. (Deborah) Birx can make decisions on where we go," Bernhardt said.
Fauci and Birx are considered the nation’s top health experts, advising the president and other leaders on how to fight the pandemic.
The latest batch of kits will head to Sonic Healthcare facilities in Memphis and Philadelphia this week to be distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices across the country.
Bernhardt said his lab has the capability to test for the coronavirus onsite, but with supply-chain issues, the facility is better used to produce the kits and send them off.