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UW-Milwaukee grad helps develop testing that would detect COVID-19 causing viruses in air and surfaces

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) graduate is involved in the development of a newly released COVID-19 surface-testing swab. The surface tests could help control the spread of COVID-19 in shared workplaces, churches and even schools.

UW-Milwaukee grad Nathan Libbey works for PathogenDx, the company studies food safety bacteria testing for salmonella and E. coli, but they felt a higher calling once the pandemic hit.

Born and raised in Burlington, Libbey spent years in the food safety industry in Milwaukee before moving to the Chicago suburbs. His focus from food safety to COVID-19 quickly shifted when the pandemic began.

“Within 30 days we had developed this test, which that’s like light-speed for scientists,” said Libbey, who now serves as the PathogenDX Businesss Development Director.

The Envirox-Rv test by PathogenDx is a swab that collects virus particles on high touch and high traffic areas.

“At the end of the day these high touch zones serve as risk areas for transmission from the environment to a person,” said Milan Patel, CEO of PathogenDx. 

For Libbey, making schools, churches, businesses and other shared spaces a safer place hits close to home.

“My wife is a teacher and I’ve got four kids in school, so it’s paramount to me to make those shared spaces safe,” Libbey says.

The test results take anywhere from five to six hours and covers a large area of spaces. Patel recommends swabs be used before and after a place has been disinfected.

“You want to do it at night so that in the morning when you get the results, you know it’s clean,” adds Patel.

“While we can’t test your nose, we can test your keyboard, and we can get a good idea of who is sick and find it before it’s symptomatic and find it before it spreads to those people,” said Libbey.

PathogenDx also developed a tool that would help detect COVID-19 in air that’s being re-circulated within a building. It would help places like call centers. The air is captured into liquid form and then tested.

“You could basically capture that air and see if there’s an asymptomatic positive person or even if there’s somebody who may be sick and shedding viruses, we could capture all of that,” says Patel.

The tests are now readily available, and Libbey says pricing depend on the frequency and how precise businesses want tests to be.

“If you can be armed with a test like this to make sure your environment is safe for you and the loved ones at home, I think we have a great success rate as we reopen,” adds Libbey.

To help with COVID-19 surface and air testing, PathogenDx recently received a federal grant from the National Institutes of Health that would ramp up testing capability from 20,000 a month to up to 4 million tests by the end of the year.

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