University working with 3D-printing developer to produce swabs for COVID-19 testing

The Innovation Hub at West Virginia University is working with a Massachusetts-based 3D-printing company to produce medical swabs for COVID-19 testing.

By Jake Stump June 3, 2020

The Innovation Hub at West Virginia University is working with WVU Medicine to churn out up to 10,000 swabs weekly to meet demands for COVID-19 tests. The swabs have been in production at WVU in recent weeks following a request from state officials and the West Virginia National Guard to ramp up COVID-19 testing throughout the Mountain State. Swabs will be distributed across West Virginia, especially to communities that have been hardest hit by this disease.

Swabs, which resemble flexible Q-tips, are inserted into the nose and through to the back of the throat where a specimen is collected onto the swab. The swab is removed, placed in a vial with sterile fluid and sent to a laboratory for testing. It’s not for the squeamish, but swabs are a universal necessity and most novel coronavirus tests depend on a continuous supply of swabs. Swab tests check for active infections, unlike an antibody test that draws blood to see if a person has recovered from the virus.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to quickly come up with creative ways to overcome shortages of critical supplies like swabs,” said Dr. Peter Perrotta, system director of pathology services for WVU Medicine. “The partnership between the College of Engineering and the hospital will help us produce up to 10,000 swabs a week to help meet testing needs across the state.

The Innovation Hub partnered through an agreement between the hospital and Formlabs, a 3D-printing technology developer and manufacturer based in Somerville, Mass., to produce swabs for doing these tests.

“Our Innovation Hub managers stepped up and said, ‘Let’s use the Innovation Hub to make some prototypes,’” said Gene Cilento, the Hub’s director and professor of chemical engineering. “We were just thinking of how we could help the hospital through the pandemic, especially with the shortage of critical supplies.”

WVU’s existing relationship with Formlabs, in which the company’s printers have been used by the Statler College to print jigs and fixtures, helped accelerate a smooth process in producing the swabs, said Max Lobovsky, Formlabs CEO and co-founder.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S., Formlabs worked with our partners at WVU to find a way to print swabs safely so WVU could offer the swabs to its network of hospitals and health organizations that needed access to this crucial testing component,” Lobovsky said.

“From the onset of COVID-19, Formlabs felt compelled to provide assistance knowing that the speed and flexibility of 3D printing could improve the shortages caused by COVID-19, and we are proud to see our community of users continue to join the fight against this pandemic.”

The West Virginia National Guard said mass production of these swabs will enable it to test more residents across the state at a greater pace and scale.

“One of the most important things identified for our state to combat COVID-19 is our ability to conduct testing on a large scale,” said Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard. “Understanding this vital need, the Guard has stepped up to provide assistance in procuring the necessary materials to make swabs right here in West Virginia. Just as we have been innovative in developing our own PPE, this is another example of the type of collaboration and ingenuity that makes West Virginia stand out amongst the crowd in our ongoing response to this pandemic.”

It’s also the latest effort of the Innovation Hub, which just launched in the spring, in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Hub has collaborated with other schools and colleges on campus for projects that include using laser cutters and 3D printers to supplement personal protective equipment, such as face masks, a variety of face shields, intubation boxes and surgical mask extenders.

– Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Author Bio: Jake Stump, director, West Virginia University Research Communications