Updates and Information on Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Local Lab Helps Healthcare Facilities, Schools, Businesses Prevent Spread of COVID-19

November 18, 2020

In June, Assured Bio Labs, LLC, an environmental microbiology lab in Oak Ridge, became the first U.S. facility to be accredited by the AIHA for surface and air analysis of the virus that causes COVID-19. Since then, the lab has tested samples for more than 100 clients including hospital systems, long-term care facilities, financial institutions, commercial businesses, municipalities and manufacturing facilities. Their capability allows for rapid detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 virus in air or on surfaces using proprietary swab technology and M-TRAP® technology patented by Assured’s CEO, Edward Sobek (EMBA-HL, ’16). 

“Our technology allows for quick, 10-minute grab samples from the air or longer samples using our WhisperCare Continuous Monitoring technology that can run from eight hours to seven days, depending on the client’s need,” Sobek says. 

With the pandemic still surging, testing air and surfaces for COVID-19 is essential to protect workers and the public. Many large companies are preparing (or have begun) to bring workers back in full or partial capacity, and one of the key technologies they are interested in deploying to combat Covid-19 infections is WhisperCare. 

Sobek originally developed the business plan and marketing for WhisperCare while working on his Executive MBA in 2016 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business. WhisperCare was the primary focus of his Organization Action Project (OAP) for his EMBA. His project focused on implementing WhisperCare in hospital critical care facilities, and he conducted a project in a pediatric oncology facility where he monitored 25 patient rooms over six months at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies in Ohio. 

“We had been using WhisperCare to detect airborne mold and bacteria that are harmful to children with weak immune systems in the oncology facility,” Sobek says. “When Covid-19 hit, it was an easy switch to adapt WhisperCare to capture the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Sobek notes that the technique his lab developed for COVID quantifies the virus concentration in a sample, whereas other labs only report positive or negative results. Quantification reduces false negative and false positive reporting.

“We take a molecular biology approach and extract and quantify SARS-CoV-2 virus based on a calibrated RNA analysis,” he says. “It’s very similar to what the CDC is doing, but we provide count data or the exact number of viral particles in the air or on a surface.”

Sobek says engineering solutions that focus on air circulation, coupled with knowledge of viral loads in the air and on surfaces, are required to confront the problem.

“Unlike human testing, where the CDC only needs to know if a person is negative or positive for Covid-19 virus, facility managers and EHS personnel need counts to test and refine their cleaning and air purification methods,” Sobek says. 

Assured Bio is working closely with Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center to monitor hospital COVID ICU rooms and rural schools. That collaboration involves another 2016 EMBA graduate, Tiffany Nelson, who is the executive director of the center. 

“Tiffany and I have kept in contact since graduation, and when Covid-19 hit we started discussing an approach to help protect healthcare staff as well as students and teachers in public schools,” Sobek says. “We wanted to know how much, if any, viral load was being shed from infected persons, and how the virus spreads indoors on air currents related to ventilation.”

Sobek says they have been detecting high viral airborne concentrations in the ICU rooms, which is often greatest near the ventilator, but remains in the thousands throughout the room – more than enough viral particles to infect care providers.

“This testing has provided us with critical information to implement measures to reduce airborne concentration in these locations,” he says. Assured’s next steps include monitoring areas immediately outside of the ICU and starting testing on low-cost technologies that can reduce the spread. 

Sobek, a microbiologist with more than 23 years of laboratory and field experience, invented and patented the M-TRAP® microbial detection technology. In addition to his MBA from UT, he holds a PhD from Texas Tech University.

About Assured Bio Labs

Assured Bio Labs, LLC, has a 5,000-square-foot research laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the heart of the Tennessee Valley Corridor. The lab’s mission is to protect the air and surfaces in businesses and homes. The lab’s commercial services arm offers an AIHA accredited COVID-19 test and tests for molds, allergens, bacteria and volatile organic compounds at commercial, industrial and residential locations. Its R&D arm develops products and “new-to-the-world” biotechnology solutions for use in the indoor air quality market and beyond.

About the Haslam College of Business Healthcare Executive Programs

Haslam’s internationally recognized graduate and executive education programs address real-world challenges through an interdisciplinary approach where students develop new analytical and leadership skills. Faculty are industry thought leaders, seasoned practitioners and accomplished researchers who ensure the learning experience applies directly to each participant’s current or future job. Haslam’s Executive MBA is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for overall alumni satisfaction (Financial Times, 2020) and the healthcare executive programs (including the Physician Executive MBA and Executive MBA for Healthcare Leadership) are ranked No. 1 among U.S. public universities by size of enrollments (Modern Healthcare, 2020).

--

CONTACT:

Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu