Washington university halts coronavirus testing as kits from China are found to be contaminated
The University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine will temporarily stop using coronavirus testing kits transported from China after realizing some of them were contaminated.
According to The Seattle Times, UW Medicine purchased the kits to address the shortage in tests. The University allocated $125,000 to get them from a Chinese company named Lingen Precision Medical Products.
The Chinese supplier will refund the investment, Anita Nadelson, the Seattle businesswoman who helped secure the swabs through Chinese business contacts, told The Seattle Times. "We vetted these as best we could. It is an unexpected turn on both sides," she added.
"I have just recommended everyone who has these things pause and not use them at all," Geoff Baird, the interim chair of the University of Washington Department of Laboratory Medicine, told The Seattle Times. "I cannot say I am not disappointed," he added.
A colleague spotted the contamination and informed Baird about it. More specifically, he saw liquid reagents stored in vials turn to a different color.
Upon further inspection, he saw a small percentage of the vials changed from hot pink to yellow or orange. Some of them appeared cloudy. The color change indicates bacterial growth.
Testing the contaminated liquid revealed that a bacteria named Stenotrophomonas maltophilia was behind the change in color. The bacteria are responsible for causing respiratory infections in humans. According to Baird, it is widespread and a common contaminant.
"It lives on surfaces and it lives on factory things and tubing," he said. "I would think it's in your home, my home, it's on everything."
To check whether the bacterial contamination interfered with the testing results, Baird's team ran coronavirus positive patient samples with the contaminated liquid. He then compared the results with the uncontaminated liquid.
"There's absolutely no difference," Baird told The Seattle Times. He does not believe the bacterial growth interfered with patient samples and does not believe that people need retesting.
The contaminated liquid is crucial to the testing. It helps preserve patient samples and was not brought into contact with patients. Baird said, "We don’t expect there's any real mechanism of harm to patients."
The UW group has another reason to worry. They distributed 20,000 of these kits to Public Health — Seattle & King County and another 15,000 to the state's public health lab. "I don’t know how many they've distributed yet," he said.
In response to the contamination, John Wiesman, the state secretary of health, in a statement, said: "We are working with our partners to have them discard the product and will work to replace them as quickly as we can."
As for Public Health — Seattle & King County, the agency said it had asked partners to stop using them. "The problem with the kit itself should not present any health risk to patients," James Apa, a Public Health — Seattle & King County spokesman, said.
The US continues to struggle with testing even today. "We should be doing more, but we have not seen our volume go up," Baird said. "This is a bump in the road. We are going to get past it. We have no choice," he added.