New York's Northwell Health begins 3D printing nasal swabs for coronavirus testing

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York-based hospital system Northwell Health said it has started to make its own nasal swabs using 3D printing, enabling it to produce thousands of swabs a day that can be used in testing for the coronavirus.

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Northwell said its focus on swabs was part of an effort to avoid supply shortages related to the components for kits used in testing for COVID-19, the highly contagious, sometimes deadly respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Health experts have said widespread testing is the best way to track and trace the spread of the virus.

Researchers at Northwell and three other institutions - the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Florida, and privately-held, Massachusetts-based 3D printing company Formlabs - devised a way to print the swabs needed to collect mucous and cell samples, according to lead researcher Todd Goldstein, Northwell’s director of 3D design and innovation.

Pilot study results showed the devices are safe and effective, and it has begun printing them as needed, Northwell spokesman Matthew Libassi said on Tuesday. It can print up to 3,000 a day.

The four participants plan to share the prototype with other institutions. Any hospital with a 3D printer and the materials could make their own swabs, Northwell said.

With 23 hospitals, Northwell is the largest healthcare provider in New York state, which has by far the most cases in the United States. The new coronavirus has sickened more than 175,000 people in the United States and more than 3,400 people have died.

The swabs used in COVID-19 testing are 5 inches (12.7 cm)long with a tiny brush at the end to scoop up cells and mucous and have a hollow center to capture fluids, Goldstein said.

The devices must be made from a substance that does not interfere with the RNA, or genetic makeup, of the virus. “You can’t use cotton or wood,” Goldstein said.

As a test, Goldstein’s team swabbed 10 patients both with standard swabs and the new 3D printed swabs and compared the results to confirm they could effectively collect the cells needed to run the COVID-19 test and provide the same accurate results.

Northwell’s team opted for a nylon resin already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in dental implant procedures to create the swabs. Swabs do not require FDA approval, Libassi said.

Northwell and Formlabs have large supplies of the resin because they use it to print devices for other medical purposes, he said.

A Formlabs executive said the company plans to price the swabs comparably with traditional swabs.

Reporting by Linda Carroll, editing by Nancy Lapid, Caroline Humer and Bill Berkrot