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USF may have an answer to coronavirus testing shortage: 3-D printed nasal swabs

Over the course of two weeks, USF researchers developed an effective nasal swab which can be used in coronavirus collection kits.

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To help combat the shortage of coronavirus testing kits, researchers at the University of South Florida have developed a 3-D printed nasal swab that’s just as good as the real thing.

Testing swabs have been in short supply across the country, including in Tampa Bay, which has bogged down the ability to test potentially contagious people for coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. Without the swabs, testing is impossible.

Nasal swabs resemble Q-Tips, but are designed with medical grade fiber capable of collecting the right amount of material to run a proper test. USF researchers are confident that the 3-D printed swabs can and will be used in hospitals across the country very soon, but didn’t elaborate on a timeframe.

The process of developing the swabs, from coming up with the idea to the testing of a prototype, happened over the course of about two weeks. Normally an endeavor like that would take at least several months, said Dr. Charles Lockwood, the dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“It’s been an extraordinary effort and it shows you what people can do in an emergency,” Lockwood said. “This is our health care version of a war, and war brings lots of creativity.”

Summer Decker, an associate professor of radiology and director of 3-D Clinical Applications at USF Health, said they came up with the design for the nasal swab in about two days. USF Health partnered Tampa General Hospital, Northwell Health, a healthcare provider in New York, and Formlabs, a Massachusetts company which manufacture 3-D printing machines and materials.

After making the design, tests run locally and in New York showed the printed nasal swabs were effective. The swabs are still undergoing clinical trials for federal approval, Decker said. Once approved, the design will be shared with hospitals so other health care systems can print their own.

USF Health developed a 3-D printing design for nasal swabs used in coronavirus testing kits. [Photo courtesy of USF Health] [Courtesy of USF Health]

Decker’s team can print 3,000 swabs a day for USF Health and Tampa General, she said. Other labs on campus could add thousands more to the mix. And the printing cost of each swab is less than 30 cents a piece.

Formlabs is using their printing machines to produce other high-demand medical equipment like ventilators and face shields. But David Lakatos, the company’s chief product officer, said he thinks nasal swabs for testing will be the most high-impact item they print. He said only a handful of places make the swabs and they already can’t meet the overwhelming demand.

Lakatos said government agencies have already expressed interest in the swabs.

"We are looking for guidance from the government to send these to the right place,” he said.

Decker founded the team now printing the swabs in 2012, where she’s mostly focused on helping physicians with difficult surgical cases by using 3-D printed models for practice. She said she’s never experienced anything as urgent and widespread as what they’re doing now. The collaboration with other groups, including different departments within USF Health and at Tampa General Hospital, has been the most rewarding part, Decker said.

“In many ways it’s been surreal, exhausting, but very rewarding because were excited to be able to use the tools that we have in a different way to be able to help patients,” she said.

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