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Working with area’s colleges, Broad Institute surpasses 1 million COVID-19 tests

The biomedical research center has processed samples from more than 100 schools

Teams of scientists at the Broad Institute perform viral tests for COVID-19.
Teams of scientists at the Broad Institute perform viral tests for COVID-19.Scott Sassone/Broad Institute

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is best known for cutting-edge genomics research. But shortly after 9 o’clock on Sunday evening it achieved another milestone: It performed its one-millionth test for COVID-19.

Six months after the nonprofit institute in Cambridge began testing for the coronavirus to help overwhelmed laboratories and hospitals, the Broad reached the landmark as technicians, many of them recently hired, work around the clock.

“It’s a mind-boggling figure,” Eric Lander, president and founding director of the Broad, told employees in an e-mail he sent Sunday night.

Each day, the institute tests about 40,000 nasal swabs collected and driven there by about 30 couriers. Colleges and universities have been the biggest source in the past couple of weeks, with 108 public and private colleges providing samples obtained from students, faculty, and staff. Most of the colleges are in Massachusetts — including Harvard, MIT, Boston College, and Northeastern — but some are in other New England states and New York.

And if there’s any encouraging news in the pandemic, it’s this: Fewer than 1 in 1,000 college tests have come back positive at the Broad so far.

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That’s a 0.1 percent positive rate. The statewide average positive rate has recently hovered around 1 percent — closer to one in a hundred people tested.

“Overall, the average rate of 1 in 1,000 is good news,” said Stacey Gabriel, senior director of the Broad’s Genomics Platform. “The goal is to detect these cases quickly before they spread.”

Founded in 2004, the Broad Institute houses one of the largest genome sequencing centers in the world. Its scientists search for the genetic roots of diseases, including rare inherited disorders, and try to discover and develop medicines to treat them.

But when the pandemic erupted locally in March, it made sense for the institute to pivot to performing COVID-19 tests. Hospitals were swamped with requests to perform polymerase chain reaction tests on people suspected of having the illness, and the number of confirmed cases was surging.

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In about two weeks, the Broad converted a clinical processing lab used for genomic sequencing in the treatment of rare diseases and cancers into a large-scale COVID-19 testing facility at its building at 320 Charles St. in Cambridge. The institute hired 200 technicians to process the molecular tests around the clock.

The facility began operating March 25, when it received 140 samples for testing, mostly from small hospitals and clinics on Cape Cod. This past Friday, the institute performed 43,000 tests. (For comparison’s sake, New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics recently said it can perform 200,000 COVID-19 tests a day.)

The Broad is now processing more than 1 in every 20 tests for the COVID-19 virus in the country, and the turnaround time averages less than 24 hours, according to the institute. In addition to colleges, the sources of samples include nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, homeless shelters, and free public testing sites.

The institute is also providing free testing in 17 cities and towns as part of Stop the Spread, a campaign by the Baker administration to make testing more readily available to people with or without symptoms in communities with worrisome infection trends.

When the Broad charges for testing, Gabriel said, it’s only to cover costs. The test fee ranges from $25 to $50, she said, but most tests cost $35.

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“The Broadies involved in the testing program are keeping our neighbors safer and helping all of us get a bit closer to normal,” Lander told employees in the e-mail.


Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jonathan.saltzman@globe.com