Demand for COVID-19 Testing Supplies in Missouri Gets a Boost From Problem Solvers with 3D Printers

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology, in collaboration with MU Health Care

    In the fight to contain COVID-19, the high demand for necessary tools has area institutions exploring options. One group of problem solvers at the University of Missouri is using 3D printers to produce a needed supply of COVID-19 testing swabs.

    “We identified early in the process that the collection kits for testing COVID patients were in short supply,” said Brad Myers, MU Health Care’s executive director of pharmacy and lab services, who is the team leader of the project.

    When the demand exceeded the supply for swabs, a cross-campus volunteer group, the Hacking COVID-19 Task Force, set out to manufacture its own. The swabs are inserted deep into the nose to collect secretions from the upper throat to determine if a person is infected with COVID-19.

    An engineering lab on the University of Missouri campus is helping MU Health Care keep up with testing by using 3D printers from a Massachusetts-based company called Formlabs.

    “For 3D printing medical devices like these swabs, there are printers that work with specialized materials,” said Jaya Ghosh, PhD, program director of the MU Coulter Biomedical Accelerator. “The printers we procured are already used in dental clinics to make dental implants and guides, so the resin being used to print these swabs is cleared for clinical use.”

    Formlabs provided the software that tells the printers the exact specifications for creating a swab. The printer heats up the resin and molds it into the right shape. The swabs are placed in a bath of isopropyl alcohol for 20 minutes to clean them. After they dry, they are hung — 81 at a time — in a curing rack and heated to 158 degrees for a half-hour. When they emerge, they have turned from green to brown. Then they’re tested with a machine that applies force to make sure the finished swabs break under the correct amount of pressure.

    “The reason to break the swabs is to make sure they’re not too soft and too bendable, or they’re too stiff and brittle,” said Michael Absheer, the manager of the College of Engineering’s 3D printing lab.

    “It’s a long plastic stick with a nylon brush on the end, but there’s a lot of things that go into that,” said Myers. “They have a score mark where the swab needs to break, because it’s approximately six inches long and you can’t put the whole swab in the tube when you send it to the lab for testing. But if the swabs aren’t flexible enough, they could break while collecting the sample inside someone’s nose.”

    The swabs are later sterilized to test patients for COVID-19. MU Health Care bought five printers, with the goal of printing 1,000 swabs per day, up to 15,000.

    “It was really neat to see everyone pull together. We identified a need, we were able to find a solution, and we at MU Health Care did not have the expertise to manage 3D printing, whereas our colleagues at school of engineering have used printing in the past,” said Myers