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Some doctors believe 3-D printing may be the answer to the nation’s nasal swab shortage.
“It turns out that the swab is in short supply around the United States primarily because one of the chief manufacturers of the swab is located in northern Italy,” Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of USF’s Morsani College of Medicine, told Fox News.
Italy has been one of the countries hardest-hit by COVID-19. That’s why Lockwood said three groups, the University of South Florida Health, Northwell Health in New York, and the Massachusetts-based company Formlabs, came together to design a swab that can be made in-house with a 3-D printer for coronavirus testing.
A batch of freshly printed 3-D nasal swabs (USF Health)
In Florida, one does not have to travel far to see the nasal swab shortage firsthand. Yolette Bonnet, the CEO of FoundCare, a nonprofit health center, said its drive-thru testing facility in Palm Springs has been inundated with the demand for COVID-19 testing. Just over 500 have actually been tested, of the 22,000 people who called inquiring about appointments.
Due to the testing supply shortage, they have turned people away.
“Sometimes, I have to laugh to stop from crying,” said Bonnet. “We feel powerless.”
FoundCare’s drive-thru testing facility in Palm Springs, Fla. (FoundCare)
Bonnet adds that typically the clinic has fewer than 100 nasal swabs on hand at any given time — not nearly enough to accommodate the demand.
But designers claim that 3D printing nasal swabs could help alleviate this burden. USF Health has the ability to print up to 15,000 nasal swabs a week by itself.
Once the swabs are ready for industry-wide use, USF intends to share the design with labs around the country so that any hospital with a 3-D printer can make their own. The cost of production is estimated at about $0.30 per swab.
Side-by-side photos showing a full batch of 3-D printed nasal swabs (left) and some individual swabs (Formlabs)
“It’s like we were sent to war here in health care and we weren’t given bullets, and our lab is providing the bullets,” Dr. Summer Decker, of the USF Health Department of Radiology, told Fox News.
The FDA said in a statement that due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has “been providing unprecedented flexibility to labs and manufacturers to develop and offer COVID-19 tests across the U.S.,” which is allowing developers to move more quickly. Formlabs said in a statement that prototypes were designed and built in a span of two days.
Dr. Decker emphasizes that her team has been working closely with the FDA, and all of the tools and materials they are using meet medical standards.
“I think it’s important to stress that this isn’t your everyday “garage” 3-D printer that your friend has or your friend’s kid has,” said Dr. Decker. “These are medically cleared 3-D printers that we are using.”
A row of 3-D printers at a Formlabs facility that are currently printing out nasal swabs (Formlabs)
As a result of the swabs’ quickened development, Tampa General Hospital and Northwell Health already have been testing them in action.
The results have been promising.
“We’ve seen that the data lines up where the information collected from the 3-D printed swab is the same as the data collected from the commercially available swab,” Dr. Todd Goldstein with Northwell Health told Fox News.
Both Northwell Health and USF Health tell Fox News the swabs could clear the last of their trials in a matter of days.
Swabs 3-D printed by Formlabs in their packaged form (Formlabs).
In addition to battling the shortage, Lockwood said more testing supplies will lead to a wider range of people being tested.
“With this particular epidemic, we’ve only been testing for the acute presence of the virus — so highly infectious people,” said Dr. Lockwood. “Because we’re so short on testing kits and so short on testing capacity, we’ve only tested the sickest people.”
With the ability to test more Americans, he believes doctors will have a better idea as to how many people are actually infected nationwide.
As her team continues to work on the COVID-19 testing front lines, Bonnet emphasizes that having more supplies is crucial. She believes this advancement could make a difference for them.
“I think it would be a real game-changer for the community,” said Bonnet. “Every every little bit helps.”
Robert Sherman joined Fox News in 2019 as a multimedia reporter based in Orlando, Florida.