Assembling the right team: Aria Diagnostics quickly reinvents itself to battle COVID-19 pandemic

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A lab on 96th Street has quickly transformed its mission from toxicology screening to testing for COVID-19.

Aria Diagnostics, 5635 W. 96th St. in Indianapolis, typically checks for narcotics and opioids, but in recent weeks it has shifted its focus to not only offering COVID-19 tests but assembling them as well.

Khan

Founder Zak Khan, a Carmel resident and 1994 Carmel High School graduate, said only testing people showing symptoms of the disease – the policy in much of Indiana and elsewhere – doesn’t do enough to stop its spread. He said everyone who isn’t staying at home – from road workers to grocery store employees – should be tested.

And he’s not going to let a lack of testing kits stop that from happening.

“If you create a strategy saying, ‘There’s a lack of kits; we only want to test those who are symptomatic,’ that goes in the face of the evidence that says people are going to be asymptomatic (but contagious),” Khan said. “The way the disease works is once somebody gets it, they may be symptomatic, they may not.”

Khan said he became frustrated hearing about testing kit shortages, especially in areas hardest hit by COVID-19, so his team collected the raw materials needed to make them and began assembling them this week at Pure Pharmacy at Old Meridian Street and W. Carmel Drive in Carmel.

In the first week, Khan expected to assemble 50,000 kits, with 100,000 assembled per week thereafter. Many of the kits will be used locally, with others destined for clients in North Carolina, Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland. Khan and his partners formed Apex Medical to manage the assembly and are donating 50,000 of the kits to New York, one of the hardest-hit areas.

“Nobody that I’m aware of in this country is manufacturing kits,” Khan said. “They aren’t hard to assemble.”

From left, Sabrina Gatlin and Christine Hamilton assemble COVID-19 test kits at Pure Pharmacy in Carmel. Both normally work at Capitol Street Surgery Center. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

Ramping up

As of April 6, Khan said Aria was testing more than 200 people for COVID-19 each day, with results ready within 48 hours. But Khan said Aria has the capacity to conduct 10,000 tests per day. Many of those tested are first responders from central Indiana, including Carmel, Noblesville, Whitestown, Fishers, Zionsville, Westfield, Avon, Pike Township and the Indiana State Police. But the business also is expanding its reach, offering testing for several facilities in Texas.

Each test costs $175. Carmel is using Aria to test its first responders weekly and other employees at least once, aiming eventually to identify not only those with COVID-19 but also those who may have unknowingly had it and recovered. The city expects to pay $600,000 for the tests, which city leaders believe will be reimbursed through the federal government.

“The testing can prevent even more costly hospitalizations and additional medical treatment among our insured,” Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said. “Each hospitalization we avoid will save the city health insurance fund tens of thousands of dollars.”

Brainard said the postponement of elective surgeries has helped supply the city health insurance fund, which had approximately $2 million as of Feb. 29.

Khan said testing first responders saves taxpayer dollars by identifying firefighters and police officers who can go to work so cities don’t pay overtime to cover shifts for those unnecessarily quarantined.

“It’s really expensive for municipalities,” Khan said. “Our first mission is always to get those guys back to work.”

Christine Hamilton, who normally works at Capitol Street Surgery Center, assembles COVID-19 test kits at Pure Pharmacy in Carmel. (Photo by Ann Marie Shambaugh)

‘An opportunity to serve’

Several community partners have offered to help with the effort, with Anthony’s Chophouse on Carmel’s Main Street offering the use of a cooler to store prepared kits before they are shipped to customers.

IU Health’s pathology department also stepped up to help, Khan said, when Aria encountered a bottleneck in processing tests.

“These are normally labs we compete with, but we have learned we have to work together,” Khan said. “This is not an economic opportunity. It’s an opportunity to serve those who have been protecting us.”

Getting started

Before founding Aria Diagnostics, Khan began operating surgery centers, including Capitol Street Surgery Center in Indianapolis. He partnered with Vipin Adhlakha, a molecular biologist who had been one of his best friends at Carmel High School, to launch Aria Diagnostics at the request of physicians wanting, in part, to ensure patients were taking potentially addictive drugs as prescribed.

But now, with labwork slowed because many doctors aren’t seeing patients in offices, Aria has the ability to transform its short-term focus to testing for COVID-19. Aria purchased machinery and software to make it happen.

The idea sparked three months ago when reports of the new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, first came out of China.

“Vipin said, ‘We’d better look at COVID-19, because if we can test for it I think there will be value in the U.S. market, clinically,’” Khan said. “So I said, ‘OK, let’s look at doing it.’”

Learn more at ariadxs.com.

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