After months of complaints about testing delays, New York City officials on Thursday are set to announce that they have opened a lab in Manhattan that should significantly cut down on wait times as the city prepares for its most ambitious period of reopenings, with public school classes and indoor dining scheduled to begin this month.
Rather than depend on the big laboratory companies — which have been inundated with demand from across the country as the virus continues to spread, leading to backlogs — the new facility will prioritize New York City residents, meaning turnaround times within 24-48 hours, officials said.
Within a few weeks it is expected to be able to process more tests for city residents than any other lab, a rare bright spot for New Yorkers, who since March have experienced numerous woes in trying to get tested for the coronavirus.
“It will give us more capacity just in terms of sheer numbers,” said Dr. Jay Varma, a City Hall adviser who is playing a leading role in the city’s coronavirus response. “It will also give us control because this is a laboratory really dedicated to New York City.”
New York City has one of the most ambitious coronavirus testing programs in the country, swabbing more than 200,000 people a week, more than 2 percent of all city residents. The new lab, which began processing tests this week, should eventually help significantly expand on that.
The laboratory, on the 12th floor of a building on First Avenue and East 29th Street, is run by Opentrons, a small robotics firm. But New York City has played a significant role in the laboratory’s creation, city officials said. For now, the city and its public hospital system are the lab’s only customer.
At first, the new laboratory, which is being called the Pandemic Response Lab, will handle just a few thousand tests a day, mainly from samples collected at testing sites run by the city’s public hospital system, officials with City Hall and Opentrons said.
But the expectation is that the laboratory will eventually be able to test more than 40,000 samples a day, possibly including some from public school students and teachers, depending on the need.
By Wednesday morning, the lab had returned results on the first 712 samples it had been sent, and is currently able to handle about 3,000 samples a day, a number that is expected to rise dramatically over the next week, a spokesman for the lab said.
Public health officials are hopeful that testing will — for the first time since the coronavirus arrived in New York City — no longer be a scarce resource.
The new laboratory is the latest chapter in the city’s long-running efforts to fix a series of problems plaguing testing efforts. The problems go back to February and March, when a series of missteps and disastrous decisions by the federal government meant that few people qualified for a test — even when they exhibited clear Covid-19 symptoms — as the virus began circulating across New York City and its suburbs.
At first, the federal government had a monopoly over testing, and the city scrambled to develop the ability to test on its own. Early on, the effort was hamstrung by shortages of test kits, chemical reagents and even the swabs used to collect samples.
In the months that followed, the largest national laboratories dramatically increased their testing capacity, and New York City began to rely on them to handle most local testing. But some of these laboratories, like Quest Diagnostics, grew overwhelmed this summer amid worsening outbreaks elsewhere in the country.
That contributed to wait times as long as 2 to 3 weeks for test results in New York. To public health officials, it was clear New York City needed more testing infrastructure that it could control — or at least rely on.
“We’ll be getting into the scale of testing capacity that we feel is critical,” Dr. Varma said.
The additional capacity could come in handy amid the coming push for students and teachers to get tested as in-class instruction resumes for hundreds of thousands in the public school system. And as flu season begins and colds began circulating in greater numbers, the demand for testing may increase as New Yorkers contend with symptoms that might or might not mean Covid-19.
“We knew that we really needed our testing capacity to be at the maximum in the fall,” Dr. Varma said.
Opentrons, the robotics company that will run the lab, specializes in automating research laboratories. Jonathan Brennan-Badal, the company’s chief executive officer, said three robotic arms will move trays, each containing some 380 samples, between different testing stations.
The laboratory expects to start pooling samples, a method where a number of samples are grouped together and tested as one.
James Patchett, the president of the city’s economic development corporation, expressed hope that with pooling the laboratory would be able to eventually test 40,000 to 60,000 samples a day.
The push for the laboratory goes back to early April, at the height of outbreak, when City Hall realized it faced shortages of critical supplies.
Month after month, the city’s testing program remained a weak link in its ability to respond to the coronavirus.
The city itself has had limited capacity to process tests. There was the Health Department’s own public health laboratory, as well as rapid testing equipment at various city-run sexual health clinics and public hospitals. All told, the city could process about 10,000 tests a day on its own, Jeff Thamkittikasem, the director of the mayor’s office of operations, said.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has spoken of the city’s ambition to test 50,000 New Yorkers per day by summer’s end.
For months now, City Hall and the city’s economic development agency have been speaking with lab companies and start-up firms about building more lab capacity devoted to handling tests for New York City.
The new laboratory will rely in part on a process that was developed by genetic researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center, Mr. Brennan-Badal, the chief executive of Opentrons, said. In addition to allowing for high-volume testing, the process also consumes comparatively fewer reagents and other supplies that have been scarce at various points in the pandemic, he said.
The city will pay Opentrons $28 for each test, which Mr. Brennan-Badal said was less than a third of what some other laboratories were charging.
Mr. Thamkittikasem, the mayor’s operations aide, said that the plan was for the lab to eventually test samples for influenza as well.