NJIT creates 3D-printed swab for COVID-19 testing

A 3D printer uses common thermoplastic to create a swab handle designed to test for the coronavirus. With COVID-19 tests in high demand, but medical swabs in short supply due to production bottlenecks, health officials turned to university labs for innovative substitutes.

In a basement at NJIT, researchers developed a do-it-yourself version.

One of those researchers, Nick Warholak, showed how to assemble a swab. First he takes a swatch of rayon fabric. Then he rolls it into a tube and bend it into a “V” before slipping the ends onto the handle.

The swabs are for throats, not nasal passages. After getting the sample, you squeeze the end of the handle, and plop the fabric into a vial filled with transit solution. The fabric is cheap and the handle’s made from filament that costs about $20 a spool. It takes a little over four minutes to print one handle.

“We can get 500 units out of one spool that costs $20. That’s pretty significant,” Warholak said. “That’s pocket change that could turn into 1,000 tests that could save 1,000 lives.”

The lab usually works with lasers, but when COVID-19 hit the mission changed. It took the team about two months to develop the NJIT swab. They posted the schematic for the swab to the National Institutes of Health website last week where it can be downloaded for free.

“You know, we were reading about ‘not enough swabs, not enough testing capabilities’ so as a group, during one of our normal group meetings, we started brainstorming what can we do to help? What services, or what technology could we provide, to make an immediate impact,” said NJIT professor Dr. John Federici.

Federici says the swabs have not been clinically tested because the design is that new. Obviously, production would require oversight for quality control and sterility. Handles can be sterilized with isopropyl alcohol.

“We’re really trying to make it available as widely as possible. And then rather than shipping they can essentially make it locally,” he added.

NJIT’s design isn’t the only 3D-printed swab. Nasal swabs made of medical-grade resin are available from Northwell Health, in collaboration with FormLabs and the University of South Florida. Another supplier will provide 50,000 3D-printed swabs a week for New York City.

Meanwhile, the seven-state purchasing consortium, including New York and New Jersey, announced it would explore innovative alternatives to manufacturing medical products.

“We needed, and continue to need, testing kits, reagents, swabs and PPE — especially gowns. There are 9 million residents in our state. We won’t need to test every single person, but there is no doubt that we need to greatly increase our testing as key to reopening the state,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli during Wednesday’s press briefing.

NJIT’s offering the state a homemade solution.