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Mobile Facilities Bring COVID-19 Testing Anywhere

Labs to be used on corporate, manufacturing, higher ed campuses

MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna is lab design editor and digital events editor for Lab Manager. Her work for the lab design section of the publication examines the challenges that project teams...

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HOK has designed mobile COVID-19 testing labs in conjunction with Germfree Laboratories Inc., to perform quick testing on large corporate and academic campuses.

The need for quick, reliable COVID-19 testing has become crucial as employees return to the workplace, even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Large organizations such as colleges, manufacturing facilities, and corporations with expansive campuses have developed plans for how to handle their employees’ return to on-site work, including social distancing measures and temperature monitoring. Both time and space are in limited supply for most of these places, meaning that building a new, large structure for COVID-19 testing just isn’t possible. Architecture firm HOK has partnered with Germfree Laboratories Inc. to develop a mobile testing lab, consisting of self-contained BSL 2-level facilities that offer on-site testing services. The mobile biosafety labs, made up of two Germfree modules, can be deployed rapidly to locations that require testing for active or suspected cases of COVID-19. The labs can accommodate up to nine staff members, and two high-throughput diagnostic machines (one for sample collection, the other for testing) capable of testing 80 samples at a time, with a potential output of over 1,100 tests per day. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the US in early 2020, “it became more and more obvious that there was a need for testing,” says Tim O’Connell, director of science and technology for HOK, along with “being able to collect samples safely and to do rapid testing at high quantities and very quickly.” HOK reached out to Germfree, a provider of controlled aseptic environments as well as primary and secondary containment units, and a longtime collaborator with HOK. “You need mass testing in Manhattan, New York, but also in Manhattan, Montana,” says O’Connell, noting that a mobile lab developed by Germfree would be a fast way to get testing capabilities to even the most remote parts of the US. “The idea was that corporate campuses need it, cities need it, academic campuses need it, and they’re going to need it for a while,” he adds. “We need to do high speed testing as much as we can in order to understand the problem.”

Floor plan for the mobile labs used for rapid COVID-19 testing.

The mobile labs have been designed with rounded window frames and door openings to create a modern, inviting appearance, with patterned window film covers to give privacy to the patients inside, and special flaps to cover doors and provide a “porch” to shield individuals waiting outside from the sun and rain. The design also offers a “science on display” atmosphere with its clear views into the testing area, and exterior graphics that illustrate the testing process and provide useful information about the coronavirus. One of the main goals, says O’Connell, was to develop an efficient facility that can be deployed quickly. “From our point of view, we didn’t want to do something so custom that it wasn’t easily built,” he says, stating that the design team wanted to utilize parts that Germfree already had in its repertoire to make the process quick and simple, but still purpose-driven. “That was critical, that we weren’t going to try to do something so custom that it would take too much time to build. [We needed] something functional so that, if it’s going to be deployed in a city or to a corporate campus for six to nine months to do testing, we didn’t want it to look like a container just sitting out there. We wanted it to look like a real piece of architecture.”

The lab is made up of two BSL 2 modules, says O’Connell, and the flexible design means that the facility can be changed around as needed. “The first module is the sample collection module—that can also then be repurposed without changing anything. It can be repurposed into phlebotomy stations if you need to collect samples for serum testing, or for vaccinations. You can use that module for all three of those purposes as it stands today.” The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) method used for COVID-19 tests, he says, can be adapted to other types of DNA tests for possible future outbreaks. “The laboratory in particular is BSL 2, which is a classification that’s also needed for cell and gene therapy and research in that space as well,” adds Carol Houts, vice president of quality and business strategy for Germfree. She notes that universities could theoretically use the mobile labs on their own campuses for cell and gene-related research, once the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a threat. Jeff Serle, senior vice president and GM at Germfree, adds that “an application for this could be temporary swing space on a campus as well. At a big university, part of the long-term situation could be to build this into your infrastructure. Take out an existing laboratory for renovation and use this space.” The modules can be stacked together to make larger spaces if needed, he continues.

The design has been completed and the mobile labs will be available in about three months, says Houts, noting that the company is capable of manufacturing 10 to 20 labs at a time. “Working with HOK on the design is important, given their expertise and their reach across the architectural realm with various industries and stakeholders,” she says. The project is not only supplying critical testing facilities to large organizations throughout the US, she continues, but it is also providing jobs to American workers during a time of economic crisis: “The majority of our critical components are US-based, and we’re supporting factories all over the country that are producing materials for these labs as well.” Kevin Kyle, president of Germfree Laboratories Inc., adds, “All of our facilities are built in our factory in Ormond Beach, Florida, and we have added about 15 percent so far to our headcount in order to meet the deployment schedule as needed. And as we all know, the need is ASAP. We’re all doing our best to meet that. We’ve added shifts, added workers. We’re very proud of that, especially in these times … we can shine a little bit of light on the situation.”