An environmental microbiology laboratory in Oak Ridge is the first in the United States to receive accreditation to analyze air and surfaces for the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19, a press release said.
Assured Bio Labs LLC was granted accreditation for testing environmental air and surfaces for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by the American Industrial Hygiene Association’s Laboratory Accreditation Program, the press release said. AIHA announced the accreditation in a tweet on June 25.
As businesses bring employees back to work, COVID-19 data for touch points and air is essential to protect workers and the public, the press release said. Accreditation ensures the quality of laboratory analysis.
“Since March, we have been running samples for local municipalities and for New York City essential businesses in the financial district,” said Edward A. Sobek, president of Assured Bio Labs LLC. In April, the lab began providing COVID-19 surface and air testing for health care facilities in the Northeast as they converted COVID-19 patient rooms into standard rooms.
“We were detecting COVID in the air and surfaces both inside and outside patient rooms,” Sobek said. “We also recently started testing long-term care facilities to provide management with data needed to protect our most vulnerable group of Americans.”
Assured Bio’s website recently added COVID counts from its positive air and surface samples, the press release said.
When asked his thoughts on controlling the spread of COVID-19 in buildings, Sobek said: “Engineering solutions focused on air circulation, coupled with knowledge of viral loads in the air and on surfaces, are required to confront that problem. Stagnant air plus COVID is a significant risk to occupants.”
Sobek said his company’s technology counts the virus concentration in a sample.
“Other labs only report positive or negative results,” he said. “Our professional clients require viral counts to implement the proper control measures. Quantification also reduces false negative and false positive reporting.”
Assured Bio Labs’ technology includes WhisperCare, a continuous air monitoring system the size of a Rubik’s cube that tests indoor air for viruses, mold, and bacteria using DNA and RNA analysis. The M-TRAP, a patented air sampling cassette developed for rapid capture and analysis of airborne microbes including viruses, is used with WhisperCare for air sampling for COVID-19, the press release said.
“We are currently using WhisperCare in firehouses to quickly identify the presence of COVID-19 and prevent widespread infection of crucial first responders,” Sobek said.
Sobek, a microbiologist with more than 20 years of laboratory and field experience, invented the microbial detection technology that he branded as M-TRAP.
The scientist and inventor opened the lab in Oak Ridge in 2005. In 2016, he earned a master’s of business administration from the University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business, where he developed and tested WhisperCare because of hospital requests for a quiet air monitoring system for patient rooms. His pilot study put WhisperCare in 26 pediatric oncology rooms, monitoring air for molds, viruses, and bacteria that could affect patient health.
An interest in science—and mushrooms—in elementary school in Pennsylvania put Sobek on the path to microbiology, the press release said. He wrote his first research paper on mushrooms in the fifth grade, looking up the scientific names for a variety of fungi. Besides hunting mushrooms as a child, an activity he still enjoys, he brought home his curiosity about the natural world.
“My mom could tell you stories about finding 25 toads in her bathtub one day,” Sobek said. He focused on fungal diseases of plants in graduate school, getting a master’s degree in plant pathology from Iowa State University. Between his master’s and doctorate, Sobek worked on a biocontrol project to shut down gene expression of a toxin produced by a fungus that grows on cotton in New Orleans. He concentrated on molds as he completed his doctorate at Texas Tech University.
When he started the Oak Ridge lab, Sobek said he had a choice of whether to innovate in microscopic and culture techniques or in the new DNA techniques for microbiology identification purposes. He chose the DNA route, which positioned the lab for its analysis of COVID-19 in air and surface samples. The lab’s experience includes analyzing for mold, influenza, and Legionella, the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease, among other microorganisms.
“COVID-19 hit my radar in late December when reports of a SARS-like virus was suspected of causing viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China,” Sobek wrote in an online blog. He became concerned about a possible pandemic when the Centers for Disease Control began screening for symptoms at three U.S. international airports.
“As the virus spread across Europe and here in the U.S., the Assured Bio team huddled and came up with a game plan to develop an environmental test for SARS-CoV-2,” Sobek said. “I believe we were the first environmental lab to get started,” noting that clinical labs were doing the same.
Assured Bio Labs first had to track down a sample of the COVID-19 virus, purchasing a small sample from the government to use in calibrating and testing its systems before offering analysis to customers.
Like the influenza virus, the genetic material of the COVID-19 virus is RNA, rather than DNA, which is relatively easy to analyze, Sobek said. He describes RNA as “a wimpy nucleic acid” and explained that it must be converted to DNA for analysis. A process called RT-PCR (Reverse Transcriptase-Polymerase Chain Reaction), which acts like a molecular photocopy machine, converts the RNA to DNA, allowing the lab’s scientists to detect and quantify the COVID-19 virus, Sobek explained.
The AIHA Laboratory Accreditation Program tweet in June congratulated Assured Bio Labs on being the first accredited lab to have the RT-PCR field of testing for analysis of the COVID-19 virus and related viruses.
The lab provides collection kits for COVID-19 analysis that includes swabs for touch points such as light switches, handrails, doorknobs, and elevator buttons. The swabs, as well as M-TRAP cassettes with air samples, must be placed in sealed bags in specialized coolers for overnight shipping to protect the virus’s fragile RNA. Besides its COVID-19 Environmental Testing Program, Assured Bio Labs developed a Pre-Post Cleaning Efficacy Test to verify that cleaning surfaces has removed the virus.
For more information, contact Assured Bio Labs toll-free at (866) 546-1727 or at [email protected]. The lab’s website is https://www.assuredbio.com. Assured Bio Labs LLC has a 5,000-square-foot laboratory in Oak Ridge and serves U.S. and international customers.
This press release and photos were submitted by Kay Brookshire.