Oct 21, 2020 · 3 min read

A Model for the Nation: Building a COVID-19 Testing Lab in Only Eight Days


In the early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, testing capacity and capabilities were a cause for concern across the United States. Here in California, the Governor understood the need to address this challenge head on. On March 12, 2020, Governor Newsom signed an executive order that provided flexibility in some state regulations governing how diagnostic laboratories were staffed. Immediately after the executive order was issued, Joe DeRisi, co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (CZ Biohub), and his team jumped into action by turning empty UCSF lab space adjacent to the CZ Biohub into a CLIA-certified COVID-19 testing facility. This partnership would be crucial in ramping up testing across the state.

Through inspiring collaboration and innovation, the CZ Biohub, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), and UCSF created one of the nation’s leading COVID-19 testing centers in only eight days—a process that would normally take months to complete. The CLIAhub immediately ramped up testing capacity at a critical time in the pandemic, processing thousands of tests per day and becoming a model for the nation.

By leveraging the resources of UCSF, CZ Biohub and CZI, the team was uniquely positioned to build one of these expansion labs. With supply chains at a standstill, engineering teams from CZI and the CZ Biohub designed and built hardware machines from scratch. CZ Biohub data science and information teams also developed an entire data system with support from CZI software engineers and by using novel solutions. In record time, the lab became a reality.

The CLIAhub would not have been possible without the team of hundreds of volunteers made up of UCSF graduate students, postdoctoral candidates, and faculty members. The volunteers worked selflessly donating their time and skills, up to 40 hours per week, to process the testing and support the CLIAhub facility.

Seeing the whole place, just pivot, like one of those transformer robots that you thought was a car, but then all of a sudden it is a PCR testing crazy robot— was really cool.

Joshua Batson, PhD, Senior Research Scientist, Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

In addition to providing critical testing capacity, the CZ Biohub was able to provide an additional layer of support for its partners at the California Departments of Public Health. Through a program called the California COVID Tracker, any positive COVID-19 sample could be shipped to the CZ Biohub to receive whole genome sequencing, analysis, and interpretation of the data, with an emphasis on making the data actionable for public health response. The sequencing and tracing of these positive tests enabled on-the-ground public health workers to track virus mutations, giving them a better understanding of how the virus was spreading through communities, and where new hot spots were emerging.

The CLIAhub has processed over 150,000 tests for communities throughout California, including to many communities that might otherwise not have had access to testing. It also provided a critical bridge for California’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force as it built up its testing capacity. We’re grateful to the hundreds of scientists, engineers, and volunteers who stepped up during this time to provide fast, reliable, and equitable access to testing for our communities at a time when they needed it most.

How AI Can Uncover the Laws of Biology
This Research Team Is Increasing Indigenous and Latin American Representation in Genomics Research