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Gravity Diagnostics: Local lab jumps out of its lane to help in COVID-19 response

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-02 11:02:55-04

COVINGTON, Ky. — About three dozen employees at Gravity Diagnostics stand in a scattered, haphazard square. They’re all spaced about six feet apart. Socially distanced. But there’s still a feeling of unity among them, and a sense of cohesiveness, too, at least in the simple black T-shirt they each now wear.

Printed on the back, in white, bold, capital letters is a simple, but telling phrase: COVID-19 RESPONSE TEAM.

Staff at this tiny medical lab, located off Russell Street in Covington, Kentucky, have processed close to 1,500 novel coronavirus samples, one of many private outfits across the country cleared to do so in the midst of a global pandemic. But, Gravity Diagnostics, at least it seems, is punching far above its weight. And CEO Tony Remington said it’s looking to do more.

The lab could grow to test 15,000-20,000 such samples a week if needed. It’s an exponential jump, not to mention a big turnaround from its normal day-to-day. Gravity Diagnostics is primarily in pharmacogenomics and toxicology field, the former of which looks at an individual’s DNA to gauge their response to certain medications, while the latter is used in an effort to reduce drug abuse and addiction.

But in January, as the novel coronavirus was starting its sweep across China, JP Canner, Gravity’s vice president of regulatory, clinical and research programs, asked if the company should try to validate a method to test for it.

It would have been easy to say no, Remington said. Gravity Diagnostics, founded in 2014, was just getting into a flow. Technically a startup, it was almost profitable. It had added upper-respiratory testing to its repertoire two years ago, and that proved a good addition to the lab. And it recorded its best month ever in February. Business was up 100 percent year-over-year. The employee count had gone from zero to 120. In other words, things were good.

But to do nothing? That wouldn’t have fit the company’s mantra, Remington said. He decided to move forward. He ordered necessary instrumentation and accelerated the lab’s planned expansion next door. Gravity has knocked down walls. Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, an economic development group, has helped it pick up more space. In the last week, Remington has hired six new employees, practically on the spot, to keep up with demand.

“Most labs my size wouldn’t have even tried this. They would have stayed in their lane,” he said. “We’re one of the few that jumped on this quick.”

Currently, Gravity is working largely with hospitals in Kentucky and first responder groups to process tests for COVID-19. So far, Gov. Andy Beshear said Thursday, more than 11,000 people have been tested across the state, Remington is hoping to roll out to full capacity at the lab soon. He thinks Gravity could handle between 3,000-5,000 tests each day. Although he’s an admitted social media novice, he has tried to post semi-regular updates online. Those have looked a little like this:

Day one, March 16. With Food and Drug Administration authorization in hand, Gravity Diagnostics begins testing for COVID-19. It processes three samples.

On March 17, there are 20.

Friday, March 19, the lab tests 86.

On March 24, that number hit 155.

And March 25, the total was 187. Most tests, he said, have been reported back to clinicians by the end of the day.

Turnaround time will likely lag to about 48 hours as volumes increases. But Remington said he wanted to staff the lab seven days a week in an effort to do more. The COVID T-shirts were one of many attempts to keep morale high.

“It’s our way to come together as a group and be there for each other,” Remington said.

He’s using local restaurants – for take out, of course – to keep employees fed, and is offering at-home daycare support, and other incentives. When employees need a break, there’s a stockpile of snacks, drinks and access to Netflix.

“In a normal time, this would be an exciting thing; it would be something we’d be celebrating. Right now, it’s bigger than us, and we feel motivated to do our part,” he said. “Our employees, nobody’s stepped away from this. This group has embraced it. You need hundreds of labs like Gravity to step up to fill the gap.”

Remington is proud of the community, too. Gravity’s biggest challenge, as for many others, has been securing protective gear for staff. But its warehouse is stacked floor to ceiling with boxes. CTI, a neighboring clinical research and consulting company, sent gloves. Medtronic, a medical device company where Remington had worked previously, shipped over even more. Thermo Fisher, an instrument manufacturer, has been an amazing partner, he said. There are countless others.

That’s where Remington wants to focus now. Headlines are abuzz about the long turnaround times for processing tests, and he is also frustrated by shortages, but there are still positives in the midst of all the chaos. He wants people to know it’s a complicated time with a lot of moving parts.

“We’re in this thing now,” he said. “But it’s the little things I like to focus on. I’m just really excited and passionate, and maybe a little bit in denial, but it’s amazing how people are [reacting] in times of need.”