Coronavirus: East Bay biotech company uses robots to help develop COVID-19 test kits

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ByDavid Louie KGO logo
Thursday, April 16, 2020
Coronavirus: East Bay lab uses robot technology to help develop COVID-19 test kits
Zymergen in Emeryville usually focuses on breaking down plastic for re-use or developing new repellants to ward off insects that can spread viruses, now the biotech company is using robots to develop the next generation of COVID-19 testing kits.

EMERYVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- The Bay Area's reputation as a biotech research hub is proving to be a valuable asset to ramp up novel coronavirus testing. An East Bay laboratory has stepped in to help.

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Robots are being used for surgery, guided by human hands. They're also adept at doing repetitive chores. That's how the company Zymergen is using them to develop a better COVID-19 test kit.

Zymergen is a biotech company that normally focuses on some of the world's biggest problems, such as breaking down plastic for re-use. Or developing new repellants to ward off insects that can spread viruses.

A few weeks ago, it was enlisted into the campaign to develop reliable COVID-19 test kits. Zymergen's Emeryville facility was tapped by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and UC San Francisco to test the neutral solution, also known as a buffer, that's used to collect and analyze swab samples taken from a patient's nose to determine if the person is infected. A robotic system was used due to the precision required that humans can't do as accurately.

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"Robots don't get hungry and bored," said Zymergen CEO Josh Hoffman. "So for these very small, very simple tasks that have to be incredibly precise, a machine is better than a person."

Robotics were able to do the evaluation over and over, 24 hours a day.

Zymergen hopes its contribution to a next-generation testing kit will help not only to save lives but also to address concerns that the results are not always accurate, leading to false diagnoses.

"Small variations in the process can lead to unacceptably high positives," said Hoffman. "So you tell someone you have COVID-19 when you don't, or false negatives where you said you don't when they actually do. So this provides a very high degree of confidence that the results will be accurate. Yes."

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The fact that the Bay Area is a center of biotech research is an asset in the fight against COVID-19, and Zymergen is one example how its facilities and expertise are helping.

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