As the next step in the COVID-19 testing program on campus, members of the COVID-19 Response Team recently established a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments-certified laboratory — an on-campus lab approved for conducting COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The lab allows for coordination of patient sample acquisition of tests, testing logistics, case management and contact tracing efforts. 

Dr. Jose Carlos Ponce Rojas, a postdoctoral scholar in MCDB, working with samples under a fume hood. Courtesy of Stuart Feinstein

The COVID-19 Response Team includes faculty, administrators and staff on campus. Among the most notable is Professor Carolina Arias, who initiated the on-campus COVID-19 laboratory and has been instrumental in all aspects of its development, according to Stuart Feinstein, another leader in the initiation and integration of the laboratory who joined Sept. 1.  

Santa Barbara County has reached the purple tier of lockdown procedures, indicating that COVID-19 is widespread in the county. Indeed, the average number of COVID-19 cases per day has reached 353 as of Jan. 6, according to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department

According to Feinstein, the biggest part of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is time.

“Too much time between testing and results can significantly compromise efforts to minimize viral spread,” Feinstein said. 

Because the lab is accredited according to Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), an especially high standard of rigor and oversights is required for the lab — a standard that Feinstein says is necessary to conduct diagnostic clinical testing.

“UC Santa Barbara personnel can process nearly a thousand samples a day and have most of the results available the same day or the following morning,” Feinstein said. “Our lab contributes greatly to our efforts to mitigate COVID-19 on campus and is therefore a very important component of our overall effort to re-open the campus for all of us.”

As part of the CLIA certification, laboratories must adhere to the standards set forth by the Center for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and the Center for Medicaid Services. 

The lab facilitates asymptomatic testing — up to 5,000 tests per week — for all UCSB students in the area as well as UCSB staff and faculty who provide essential services on campus. According to Feinstein, the ability to quickly identify cases allows the campus to swiftly address outbreaks and better mitigate the viral spread on campus and in the greater Santa Barbara community. 

Feinstein said that a CLIA-accredited lab requires routine maintenance and procedural adjustments to stay operational. According to the CDC, CLIA has strict regulations regarding the use of human specimens for health assessments or diagnoses. In addition, those involved in the diagnostic laboratory will have to continuously look out for supply chain issues to increase efficiency, as well as adapt to frequent advancements in medical knowledge about COVID-19. For instance, the new variant of the COVID-19 virus found in the U.K. has raised awareness of the ability of COVID-19 tests to detect the virus diagnostically. Feinstein said that those at the lab have determined that neither of the current tests being used are affected by the viral sequence changes in the recent variant. Still, Feinstein said that the next steps for the lab include increasing its capacity to conduct additional independent COVID-19 tests in the event that future viral sequence changes do impact the accuracy of current tests. 

According to Feinstein, the establishment of the lab wouldn’t be possible without collaborations between the response team and clinical units in and beyond Santa Barbara, such as with UCSB Student Health Services, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and laboratories at UC Los Angeles. The new lab is an extension of the CLIA-accredited laboratory belonging to Student Health Services that conducts clinical tests for other pathogens.

With the additional assistance of pathologists from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and amidst delay due to supply chain problems, the COVID-19 Response Team was able to establish the COVID-19 diagnostic laboratory in the BioEngineering building on campus in less than 5 months. 

Feinstein emphasized that it is collaborations like these that have contributed to the success of the lab, as UCSB is a non-medical research institution.

“This entire project required enormous contributions from so many people on campus, including the chancellor, vice chancellors, deans, Student Health, Student Affairs, Budget and Planning, Public Affairs and Communication, Housing, the MCDB department, Information Technology, Legal Counsel, Human Resources, chemistry stores, the Physics Machine Shop and many, many others,” Feinstein said. 

“This has been a ton of work by a whole lot of people, and there have been ups and downs — but so far, at least, I think we are getting the job done.”