5,000 a Day by May
COVID-19 tests are off and running, thanks to Tony Remington ’92
Today is Tony Remington’s birthday. He’s 50.
It’s April 8 and he hasn’t been home or seen his kids for a month, since early March when the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the U.S. and the self-isolation lockdown began. For Tony ’92, potential exposure to the virus is a runaway train, no matter the precautions and safety measures. As the president and CEO of Gravity Diagnostics, he’s stationed at the epicenter of a 50-person laboratory in Covington, Ky., where hundreds of COVID samples are rushed in and out every day — each test sealing the fate of someone who has already become a statistical victim to the deadly virus that had, as of April 22, infected more than 776,000 and stolen almost 42,000 American lives, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control.
The stress of managing this monumental responsibility could slow a person down, but Gravity can’t relax now; it’s not in Tony’s or the company’s nature.
Gravity Diagnostics has been on the pharmacogenomics scene — how genes play into a person’s response to drugs — since Tony co-founded the company in 2016. In fact, since 2018, the company has been partnering with Bentley researchers who are working to predict a person’s susceptibility of becoming dependent on opioids and, for those already addicted, the likelihood of responding positively to certain therapies, all via their DNA.
A couple of years ago, Gravity happened to begin researching upper respiratory illnesses, studying DNA predispositions and potential reactions to about 30 different pathogens — or germs. When news of COVID-19 in China reached the States, “One of my PhDs said, ‘Should we try to validate this?’” Tony recalled. “And we said, ‘Yeah. Go for it.’ But without any expectation or knowledge that we’d be where we are today.”
They were ahead of a game most of us didn’t even know we were playing yet.
Step Inside Gravity Diagnostics on Tony's Podcast Episode
Gravity invested half a million dollars in new instrumentation and protective gear, like gloves and masks, in the nick of time. “We've always been about paying it forward,” he said. “Trying to make an impact, change medicine, do something different. So when we started to see this happening, we blew out a wall and went for it.”
Gravity has processed more than 4,000 tests since the outbreak. And today they reached a new milestone: 800 tests in a single day. Turnaround can run anywhere from eight to 48 hours — although Tony doesn’t promise same day results; he doesn’t want to let anyone down right now. Thirteen new scientists have been hired to boost production and employees are taking weekend shifts, with a goal of running 4,000-5,000 samples a day by May.
That’s about 10 samples a minute.
So, what does a COVID-19 test actually entail? “You’ll hear the term kit,” Tony explained, “but it’s a swab.” Either a small paint brush or a “sophisticated” Q-tip, he said. The swabs are overnighted to Gravity, which then enters the data and moves the swab to an extraction area where the DNA is taken. The scientists run the test, make the call, and two others review the result for quality control.
Tony credits the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization of Gravity’s methodology for their ability to act fast. While bigger, national labs might be pulled in too many directions to provide such fast results, Tony says he’s grateful that Gravity can have a laser focus on the COVID test. They’ve officially partnered with the State of Kentucky to support 30+ local hospitals, have signed on to perform tests for a free, state-wide drive-thru program via Kroger, a national grocery chain, and Tony’s keeping an eye on peer organizations.
He said, “One thing I keep saying to everybody is that competition right now is good, right? Any FDA approval, any press release about a new device or new way to do this is great use because we need more solutions.”
Five-minute bedside tests? Fingers crossed.
But Tony also reminds us to manage our expectations. “Right now, everyone's running through walls to test more people than we can,” he said. His analogy: toilet paper, still out of stock four weeks into quarantine. No matter the instrumentation that comes out, there will always be a similar lag in availability. Even when Gravity is running those 5,000 tests a day, that momentum will have to continue for months — not weeks, to slow the spread, especially when no one can say for sure if we’ve reached the virus’ plateau or if the U.S. still has an Everest to climb. “Quite frankly,” he added, “I think health care has changed.”
For now, Tony’s taking it day by day.
“I turned 50 today. Right?” he mused from his desk. “So, it's like it's my birthday and I'm not with my family…but I feel good that I’m able to make an impact.”
Gravity is one of the fortunate few that have been able to give bonuses at the start of an assured recession. “You know, we have our moments where we're tapped out, running 12-hour days, and we don't know if we can take on any more,” he said. “But I think our passion and mission is to help as many people as we can, and we’re not stopping anytime soon.”