As the coronavirus pandemic surged early in 2020, Brandywine Living, a New Jersey-based company that operates assisted-living communities in seven states including Virginia, found itself in the same position as many other senior living facilities and institutions.
They were all scrambling to find laboratories that could conduct COVID-19 tests for their residents and staff.
“This virus is insidious and invisible, and many of the transmitters are asymptomatic,” said Ken Segarnick, the chief corporate officer of Brandywine, which has more than 3,000 residents in its 31 communities and about 2,000 employees.
“You have to test people early,” he said. The turnaround time on tests also is key for helping to control any spread of the virus, he said.
Brandywine Living turned to Genetworx, a Henrico County-based laboratory company that started operations eight years ago in the Innsbrook Corporate Center.
Genetworx provides a variety of laboratory services. When the pandemic hit, though, the company jumped into COVID-19 testing, ramping up its staff, equipment and real estate footprint to do so.
The result has been a massive surge in growth and employment for the company, to more than 1,000 people.
“The demand for testing was like a rocket ship,” said Segarnick, adding that his company was concerned its testing needs would become secondary to those of larger institutions.
“They [Genetworx] scaled along the way,” he said. “It was not just that they were providing Brandywine’s needs. They were taking on a lot of clients and a lot of growth. That level of growth and scale can present speed bumps along the way, but they did a good job of navigating that for us.”
“We were seeking to build a moat around our kingdom, and they were — and are — an important line of our defense strategy,” he said.
Genetworx first set up operations in 2013 in the former Henrico Innsbrook Library branch, a 17,794-square-foot building on Innslake Drive.
Today, though, the building looks nothing like a library, at least on the inside. Book shelves have been replaced by laboratory rooms housing rows of testing instruments, and the staff members walk around in white coats, masks, face shields and gloves.
Tens of thousands of patient specimens arrive at the lab daily for COVID-19 testing. The company’s goal is to provide the test results to patients within 24 hours.
“We have been averaging anywhere between 45,000 and 60,000 samples per day,” said Bill Miller, the diagnostic molecular laboratory company’s co-founder and CEO.
The lab has the capacity to test as many as 80,000 samples a day.
“We also service all 50 states,” Miller said. “A sample could be dropped off in California at 9 at night, and it will be in our lab at 6 the next morning. We count on our couriers to make sure our specimens get delivered.”
The company has invested about $2 million to scale up its operations for COVID-19 testing. It also has expanded its operations into two nearby buildings in Innsbrook to house laboratory and office space, as well as a warehouse on Parham Road.
With the COVID-19 testing boom, the company has grown in less than a year from about 60 employees to more than 1,000, most of them working in the Richmond area.
“We are looking for about 500 more people,” Miller said. “We can’t grow fast enough. We have been fortunate. We have worked with universities and recruiting agencies as we have grown. The amount of talent here [in Virginia] is great.”
Newly created jobs at the company range from laboratory technicians to customer service representatives. “Medical technologists are our ideal target for the lab side,” Miller said, but entry-level jobs also include data entry and couriers.
Genetworx was founded long before anything like COVID-19 was on the radar with the goal of doing pharmacogenetics testing, an emerging area of medicine that enables physicians to determine how an individual’s genetic profile can affect the effectiveness of medications they take.
It is a field that the company still sees as a growth market.
“We saw a gap in the system and we wanted to fill it,” Miller said. “We look for genes that metabolize specific medications. That is individualized and varies from person to person.”
“We wanted to give physicians more actionable information,” Miller said. “We are able to look at individuals’ drug-to-drug interactions and their drug-to-gene interactions, so they are placed on the medication that was appropriate for that individual.”
For instance, certain cardiovascular disease medications cannot be metabolized by some people. Genetworx’s tests were designed to identify those cases.
“We are really focused on personalized medicine,” said Miller, a native of Phoenix and an Air Force veteran with a master’s degree in health care administration. His career before founding Genetworx included working in management for several other laboratory companies.
Pharmacogenetics is also important in conditions such as depression and anxiety, said Sarah Jacobs-Helber, Genetworx’s laboratory director since the company was founded.
“There are a lot of medications that are affected by genetic mutations,” Jacobs-Helber said.
Pharmacogenetics “can give physicians a lot of insight as to why a drug is not working in a certain patient,” she said. “A lot of times it is because our body cannot break down that drug and use it, and that is what pharmacogenetics does.”
Recovery Centers of America, a Pennsylvania-based company that provides addiction treatment programs and operates treatment centers in six states, acquired Genetworx in 2017.
Genetworx has expanded its testing services into different specialties such as women’s health, gastrointestinal and urinary health, and flu testing.
“Thanks to our parent company, we were able to adapt quickly to COVID testing,” Miller said. “They were crucial in the funding we needed to get COVID testing up and going.”
Coronavirus testing is down across the U.S. The average number of tests being conducted daily has dropped by 33.6% since January, the Washington Post reported, citing the COVID Tracking Project.
Company executives say they expect to see long-term demand for some COVID-19 testing even when the pandemic recedes, as the virus is likely to remain in the population for a long time or possibly for good.
But the company’s investments to do COVID-19 testing will be useful for its other lab services, including growth opportunities in pharmacogenetics. Genetworx is currently doing about 5,000 tests per month in pharmacogenetics, Jacobs-Helber said.
“People are starting to see the value in it, and we are getting more requests for it,” she said. “It is one of our core areas, and we see it continuing, I think we are going to be seeing a lot more growth in other personalized medicine such as heredity cancer and even genetic mutations involved in cardiac diseases, because that is information we can give the patient that will allow them to make better choices.”
Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Genetworx has added additional equipment such as high-volume sample purification instruments and analysis machines called IntelliQube. The company can test thousands more samples per day than it could just a year ago.
“The thing about the COVID situation is we have been able to parlay that testing so that now we have more capacity to run our non-COVID testing,” said Jacobs-Helber, who has 20 years of experience in laboratory management. She earned a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Virginia Commonwealth University and did post-doctoral research at the National Cancer Institute and at VCU.
While no lab can ever achieve 100% accuracy in testing, “we aim for greater than 99% accuracy,” Jacobs-Helber said. “We have processes in place to minimize that happening [false negatives or positives]. We do daily decontamination and daily and weekly checks of instrumentation and also review of all data to ensure that controls for all tests are working properly.”
Ramping up the COVID-19 testing over the past year has presented a number of challenges, from obtaining laboratory resources to managing reporting of test results, Jacobs-Helber said.
One challenge was meeting various state government requirements for reporting the results of COVID-19 tests to health departments so they could track the outbreak.
“The states did not necessarily have the resources or infrastructure to receive hundreds of thousands of test results,” she said. “It was a challenge coordinating the reporting of our test results.”
Another challenge was making sure the company had the good people to do the work, she said. “We are fortunate that we have been able to get a great team of dedicated technicians and technologists. We are a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation.”
The hundreds of new hires over the last year have included Carlton Cheeley, a Hanover County resident who joined the company last July as a laboratory supervisor and a senior medical technologist after seven years working for other laboratories.
“I was looking for a growing lab,” said Cheeley, a Midlothian native who has a master’s degree in medical physiology from the University of Florida. “I was looking to be part of something that was growing and doing innovative work as well, so I feel like I landed in the perfect place.”
Genetworx’s customers include health care providers as well as institutions such as universities, government agencies, senior living facilities and other companies that need large-scale testing.
“We have a large footprint with senior living facilities,” Miller said. “We feel that will be crucial going forward because they are the most vulnerable and at risk,” for ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks.
It also sells self-administered COVID-19 nasal swab test kits that can be ordered by colleges for their students, by health care providers for their patients and residents, and by employers for their workers.
The company also has introduced mobile COVID-19 testing units in New Jersey and in Arizona and is working on starting another mobile unit in Florida.
“As people start getting back to work, the turnaround time in testing is crucial in identifying asymptomatic patients, so our mobile units have proven to be effective for that,” Miller said.
Another big part of Genetworx’s business is providing COVID-19 managed testing programs at numerous U.S. colleges, including Southern Illinois University, Loyola University Maryland and Lewis and Clark State College in Idaho.
One campus client is Washington and Lee University, which set up a COVID-19 testing facility at its Lexington campus for students and faculty and is using the company’s lab service for weekly COVID-19 tests of students who are back on campus. Student athletes are tested three times a week.
Paul Youngman, the university’s associate provost, said the school had initially sought out Genetworx’s services early last year, but the company did not have the capacity to do all the needed tests at the time, so the school used another provider until last fall, when it switched over to Genetworx.
“The turnaround time with Genetworx is fast,” Youngman said. “I took a test one day last week at 3 p.m. and got the results early the next day.”
Rapid testing “is everything in terms of being able to isolate the virus,” he said. “The minute we get a positive test, we can ask that person to quarantine.”
“That has contributed to our ability to stay open,” he said.