Walz announces plan for COVID-19 saliva testing lab in Minnesota, could process another 30,000 tests per day

Tuesday, Gov. Tim Walz announced plans for a COVID-19 saliva testing lab in Minnesota.

Walz said the state is working to finalize a $14.66 million contract with Vault Health and RUCDR Infinite Biologics.

The new lab would help expand and diversify testing capacity in Minnesota with the goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"Testing alone does not suppress COVID-19," Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm noted during a call Tuesday with reporters, still urging the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, practicing good hygiene and follow health guidelines.

The testing will not replace nasal testing, as both are expected to be working together to help improve overall testing capacity.

Rutgers’ RUCDR Infinite Biologics holds the first Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization in the country for a PCR saliva test for COVID-19, while Vault Health provides logistics and telehealth services to carry out the test.

Malcolm noted that the testing will help support schools, as health professionals expect to see more respiratory illnesses after school starts. However, that is typical every year but this year will prove a different challenge in determining if the illness is COVID-19 related or not.

Walz’s office said the lab will have the ability to more than double the state’s current test processing capacity. It’s expected to be up and running by early October.

The funding is coming from Minnesota’s federal CARES Act allotment.

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“Public-private partnerships are the key to success in our state’s effort to combat COVID-19,” said Walz. “We’ve come a long way on testing thanks to our work with the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota, and our state’s health systems, but we’re looking to make COVID-19 tests even more accessible. That’s why we’re excited to announce a new, innovative partnership with Vault Health and RUCDR Infinite Biologics that will further expand Minnesota’s testing capacity. This means more options for Minnesotans looking to get tested, and more diverse capabilities in terms of our overall strategy should we ever run into supply shortages or other hurdles down the road.”

The saliva lab will be able to process as many as 30,000 samples per day, according to Walz’s office, and at full capacity would create up to 250 jobs in Oakdale. The state has been averaging about 20,000 to 22,000 tests per day, recently, but processing about 14,000 tests per day.

“Minnesota continues to be a leader in responding to this pandemic and planning ahead for the people of our state,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “This partnership will help eliminate barriers to testing, allowing us to provide saliva testing with a quick and reliable turnaround of results.”

Walz’s office said the state will set up 10 semi-permanent test sites that any Minnesotan will be able to come to for a saliva test. The state and its partners will also offer the test in mobile testing events while Vault Health will provide services to perform some saliva tests at home. However, state officials haven’t yet determined how a mail-order testing program would work.

The other benefit of the saliva test is that it’s less prone to supply shortages than the nasal swab test, and avoids the discomfort.

“While testing alone will not suppress the virus, higher testing volumes are a central part of the state’s strategies to managing the virus,” said Malcolm. “We’ve been successful so far at keeping our case numbers from increasing dramatically, as many other states have seen. But we know we have much more demand for testing than available testing today. And with school reopening in coming weeks, we will see an even greater demand for testing.”

“Research on the efficacy of all COVID testing is ongoing,” added Kris Ehresmann, Director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology with the MDH. “The recent studies on saliva testing show it to be as effective as the nasal swab testing method. There are a lot of different options on the market, but we believe this saliva test is a particularly sensitive and accurate test, based on the research results so far.”

To hear the call with MDH officials on Tuesday, click the video below.