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High-Tech Mobile Lab-in-a-Van Will Bring Needed Testing to Underserved Communities

April 24, 2023

'This is a new chapter for us in laboratory operations'

Officials from Yale Pathology Labs (YPL), the Yale Department of Pathology at Yale School of Medicine, and Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) unveiled a new mobile Laboratory-in-a-Van that will allow them to bring much-needed testing to underserved Connecticut communities.

The van will enable the collection of patient samples, processing of tests, including saliva-based COVID-19 PCR tests, and delivery of results – all on the same day, at different locations. It will also provide the opportunity to offer community members clinical guidance. Funding for the vancame from the RADx Underserved Populations initiative of the National Institutes of Health, a program launched to speed innovation in the development, commercialization, and implementation of technologies for COVID-19 testing.

The van became possible, in part, because of the collaboration between YPL and YSPH that resulted in YSPH creating the saliva-based PCR test. The YPL Molecular Lab provided the clinical validation necessary to get the testing method ready for emergency use authorization by the Food & Drug Administration. The Yale Lab-in-a-Van research project, is led by principal investigators Angelique Levi, MD, vice chair and director of outreach programs, Yale Pathology Labs; and Anne Wyllie, PhD, research scientist at Yale School of Public Health who helped develop the PCR test.

The van can be plugged into either an outdoor electrical outlet or a generator and is capable of returning PCR test results in as little as two hours, bringing sophisticated laboratory services directly to underserved neighborhoods. Same-day onsite delivery of test results is an added benefit for communities and individuals without access to Wi-Fi or the ability to receive private health information electronically.

“Lack of sufficient access to healthcare for low-income, socially marginalized individuals has long pre-dated COVID-19,” said Levi.“The van adds to the tools we now have to fight SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses, allows us to bring our services directly to these individuals, and can inform operationalization of future models for pandemic preparedness.”

Chen Liu, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Pathology at Yale School of Medicine, said that early in the pandemic, YPL recognized the need to be closer to the front lines of patient care and that retrofitting a fully licensed, high complexity molecular laboratory into a consumer-sized van “gives us options to efficiently deliver accurate diagnostic information when and where it’s needed.”

The new van made its debut April 20 on Yale West Campus after YPL and YSPH officials held a meeting with community partners to discuss suggestions on how to best utilize the new resource. Partners include Alliance for Living (New London County), Columbus House, Inc. (Hartford, Middlesex, New Haven, and New London counties), Liberation Programs (Fairfield County), the New Haven Health Department, the West Haven Health Department, the APT Foundation (New Haven County), and others.

Among the suggestions reviewed were providing a social worker along with the YPL team to address other needs patients will have and using the van to treat and raise awareness of all respiratory diseases, not just COVID-19. Other potential needs raised/uses for van included health screenings such as glucose and BP checks, vaccinations including COVID and Hepatitis B, health education and materials for harm reduction and STI prevention. Attendees agreed that having a Yale School of Medicine affiliation will encourage people to visit the van.

The molecular van lab will be operated by a trained lab technician and a community health navigator and will initially provide SARS-CoV-2 testing for all individuals who give informed consent, including free testing for up to 400 uninsured individuals in Connecticut through the end of 2023. Health information will also be provided onsite to connect individuals who test positive for COVID-19 with appropriate community resources for care and support.

“This is a new chapter for us in laboratory operations,” said John Sinard, MD, PhD, director of clinical operations and CLIA laboratory director at Yale Pathology. “This is truly a portable laboratory that creates wonderful opportunities for us to explore new ways of bringing laboratory testing out into the community. Our laboratory is accredited by the College of American Pathologists, which holds us to a higher standard, and we hold the testing in this van to the same high standard.”

Submitted by Terence P. Corcoran on April 24, 2023