With shifting to online classes, holding office hours through Zoom and managing his research, electrical engineering professor Matthew Grayson said he’s becoming “nocturnal.” It was at about 2 a.m. on a Saturday when he read an email asking for help with the shortage of swabs for COVID-19 tests.
Grayson quickly put together a team of professors, and by the following Wednesday, March 25, they’d come up with a design for a low-cost nasopharyngeal swab and submitted it for patent in hopes their design could increase testing capacity.
“The state is doing about 6,000 [tests] per day, and some experts have estimated that the target is to be maybe threefold higher than that,” said Feinberg Professor Mark Huffman, who sent the initial email to Grayson. “People like Professor Grayson and his team were quick to take the challenge.”
Each swab is made from materials you could buy on Amazon that are safe for medical use and, in total, cost less than one penny. It’s designed with a high surface area, to collect a large sample, and a low volume, so the virus can be easily transferred off the swab in the lab.
An early test showed promising results: Researchers detected three times more of the virus by using their swabs than they did using standard swabs.
“It appears that we are onto something,” Grayson said, adding that they’ll have to do more tests to know for sure. “We should at least be able to perform just as well as the swabs that are currently out there. If we can perform better, that would be a fantastic bonus.”
Their next steps? Besides more lab testing — and testing with actual patients — Grayson’s team still needs a source of funding, Institutional Review Board approval and a corporate partner that will manufacture and distribute the swabs, if they work.
Grayson’s team includes professors Guillermo Ameer, Jiaxing Huang, Lawrence Jennings and Richard Longnecker, post-doc Jun Peng and graduate students Nancy Rivera Bolaños and Susan Park. Grayson made it clear that “those are the specialists;” his role was largely bringing them all together.
On April 15, I sat down (over Zoom) with Grayson to discuss the project and what comes next. While we talked, he assembled one of the prototype swabs in front of me. It took him just about three minutes.
“And I could do it faster if I wasn’t telling you stories,” he said.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
In a nutshell, what are you planning to develop?
You've seen people at Columbia University inventing face shields out of pieces of transparent cellophane. You've seen people at University of Florida creating respirators out of $250 worth of Home Depot supplies. This is the same sort of thing where the engineering challenge is not to try to apply all of your fancy highfalutin knowledge to make the best possible device, it's to apply all your fancy highfalutin knowledge to make the dumbest possible thing that can be most easily fabricated out of the cheapest spare parts with the least amount of effort.
When you break it all down, the costs come to something on the order of 0.75 cents per swab, so less than one penny. So this is not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme.
No. But what is the scheme? What's the goal with it?
Our colleagues at Northwestern Medicine are telling us that the availability of a nasopharyngeal swab is preventing them from being able to test as much as they would like to. And if trying to understand a contagion, you have to operate based on data. If you don't know what's going on out there, you're flying blind. When you have as sinister a disease as the COVID-19 virus, which some people are contagious and don't manifest systems, then you very much have to be testing everybody.
So the problem we're trying to solve is, how can you get as many of these swabs out so that everyone can get tested?
In the United States, we have a supply chain problem because everything's coming from Italy, and they can only produce so much at a time. The other problem is the wealthy countries are outbidding all the developing economies and snapping up all the testing, all the PPE. So, we have to create a glut in the market so that everyone can afford these.
It would be mind-numbing, but I think one person could probably make up to 1,000 of these in a day. The number of tests that were done in Chicago this past week is an order of 5,000 [or] 6,000 a day. So, if you had between 5 to a dozen people, you could completely satisfy every single test that's been conducted in the entire state of Illinois.
If it works, which we don't know yet.
So, once you enter a partnership with the industry or the company, it would be up to them to deal with the manufacture, distribution, all of those things?
Yes. Because that's what they do best. And they would also have to get the FDA approval because they would be the ones actually selling it to a customer. Now, from what I've heard, the government has been fast-tracking some of these things. The stories that I heard about the makeshift ventilator was that they got FDA approval within three hours, a process which normally takes, like, a couple years.
Do you have a potential timeline in your head for completing the research?
If we had money, things could go faster. There's a lot of people chipping in, a lot of people taking extra time away from their other research activities to make this happen, and I definitely am humbled by the number of people who are able to apply their expertise.
Literally, if we could do everything that needed to get done and the approvals were instantaneous, probably 10 days from now we'd be ready to roll. But because we have to go through these approval stages and people are busy doing other things, and they cannot just drop everything and prioritize this, it's going to be more like four weeks at the earliest, I think.
What are your research interests generally? Does this fit in with those passions at all, or even if not, why is this something you wanted to work on?
This is very far from my research expertise. I'm an electrical engineering professor; my specialty is in characterizing electronic materials for their device properties — how is an electronic material going to be useful? So this is a bit far off field. However, at the McCormick school, I also wear another hat, which is the director of global initiatives.
Because of that role, I have an awareness, perhaps a little bit more awareness than some, of some of the faculty in all sorts of different departments. But I guess most importantly, I have an awareness of an engineer's responsibility to the world.
What is “an engineer's responsibility to the world?”
I just got off the phone with Professor Jiaxing Huang. He's working on a different COVID-related project, and he was explaining how if you have a creative technical education, you have sort of a privilege of being able to see solutions to problems that other people might not see. And having this privileged position, you as a productive member of society, I think, have some responsibility to step in when it seems like there may be an opportunity to contribute to the greater good.
This edited and condensed interview transcript is almost entirely from the April 15 conversation with Professor Matthew Grayson. The last question in the transcript is from a follow-up call with Grayson, when we discussed the results of preliminary tests.