Nearly 14K COVID tests left 'untouched for a week' in Bay Area lab; customers still wait for results

Scientists weigh in on concerns about the accuracy of the results after tests were sitting out for seven days.
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Nearly 14,000 coronavirus tests were left sitting in bags in a Pleasanton-based lab. Now, customers are still waiting for their results nearly two weeks later.

Here's what went wrong.

Bay Area-based bio-health technology company Virus Geeks told the ABC7 News I-Team roughly 30 bags full of specimens were left stacked on the floor for seven days - all untouched. The tests were sent from the company's test sites at the San Mateo County Event Center and the Monterey airport.

"For all you folks out there who are mad, I'm terribly sorry," said Frank Lee, the company's CEO. "They have a right to be mad."

Facing unprecedented demands for COVID testing amidst the height of the omicron surge, Lee says his company relied on Pleasanton-based diagnostics company DiaCarta to help process the overflow of PCR tests. But days went by and the company never received the results.

RELATED: Promised quick turnaround, customers wait 7+ days to get COVID test results from Virus Geeks

"It didn't feel right" said Lee. "Somethings going on here...we're now on day 3, day 4, day 5."

Lee told the I-Team following our story, DiaCarta claimed the issue due to a data reporting error. But, when his team showed up to check it out they took pictures of dozens of their bags -- still sealed -- filled with unprocessed samples.

Lee: "To our horror, they were just left in the original bags we sent to them."

Stephanie: "Did they indicate to you what happened... what the problem was?"

Lee: "They said they only had one scientist. To give you an idea - to process 5,000 samples a day you need a minimum of three scientists."

The ABC7 News I-Team reached out to DiaCarta for further comment to clarify how long the bags were sitting in their facility. The company responded with a statement stating:

"That is not true. Virus Geeks sample bags were not sitting in our facility for over a week."

Yet pictures taken from Lee's employees show the company's bags in the DiaCarta lab with locator tags on them. DiaCarta told the I-Team a portion of the samples were processed, but later admitted in the email, "due to increasing workload from our own customers we told them to take samples back."

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Virus Geeks said they've pulled back testing at all of their locations across Northern California as the company works to process the influx of samples returned from the Pleasanton lab.

Lee said he hoped the backlog would be cleared up in a couple days, but expects it will now be wrapped up by Friday. As of Thursday night, it's been 10 days since the nearly 14,000 COVID tests were first collected.

Stephanie: "It essentially defeats the purpose."

Lee: "Absolutely."

The backlogged results aren't useful two weeks later, but still come with a price tag billed to insurance companies. Ultimately, taxpayers will be picking up part of the tab for those uninsured.

But, the cost isn't the only concern. Viewers also raised questions about the quality of the specimens sitting out for an extended period of time.

Stephanie: "Will you still be able to test the results?"

Lee: "Yes. Samples remain viable up to 21 days in ambient temperatures, so within room temperature they're fine."

Kenji Obadia Mfuh, the manager of Stanford's clinical virology lab disagrees. Mfuh has facilitated studies on the quality of PCR COVID tests left in room temperature for several days.

"Over time at room temperature, specimens are going to degrade," said Mfuh. "But how much they degrade really depends on the collection device."

Stephanie: "Would you be concerned about the quality of samples sitting out for a period of six to seven days in room temperature?"

Mfuh: "To me it's very unlikely that you would have accurate results if the samples were kept at room temperature for up to that amount of time."

Given his experience testing specimens, Mfuh told the I-Team that prediction would be true for most PCR tests.

"If the nuclear acid has degraded you can have a false negative result because of that degradation," he said.

Customers like Marilyn Moore learned she tested negative from her Virus Geeks swab last Monday, but was positive on an antigen test the next day.

"I know things can change from one day to the next," Moore said. "But I don't know, it's fishy."

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San Francisco resident Jenny Shao agrees. She was promised results within 48 hours, but ended up waiting ten days.

"It's misleading," said Shao. "It's an abuse of their contract and an abuse of public trust."

San Mateo County Health told the I-Team they're working with Virus Geeks to improve test turnaround times.

RELATED: CA to renew COVID testing contract worth up to $1.7B with company reporting less efficient results

"Unfortunately there are staffing disruptions that have affected so many sectors, including test processing vendors with such high demand," said Srija Srinivasan, the deputy chief of San Mateo County Health.

Virus Geeks provides testing services at several colleges and high schools in San Mateo County and previously hosted a test site at the San Mateo Marriott before expanding to the San Mateo County Event Center.

Stephanie: "What are you doing to ensure that this doesn't happen again?"

Lee: "We're going to keep it in house so we can make sure we're responsible and make sure we keep the volume to our capacity."

According to Lee, Virus Geeks is now adding a new lab that will increase their testing capacity from processing 10,000 PCR tests per day up to roughly 70,000 PCR tests per day.

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