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A Key Piece of New York City’s Covid Response Is Closing as Cases Rise

In the first year of the pandemic, before at-home Covid-19 tests were widely distributed and when lines at CityMD urgent care centers sometimes snaked around the block, City Hall realized New York needed a large-scale laboratory of its own and set out to recruit a company that would build one.

Out of that effort, the Pandemic Response Lab was born. Run by a robotics company, and with New York City as its main customer, the lab processed some 10 million Covid tests for New Yorkers, with quick turnaround times. By early 2021 it had expanded into variant surveillance, providing health officials with a detailed snapshot of which new versions of the virus were gaining ground in the city.

Now, the robotics company that owns the lab has decided to shut down the mass testing facility at the end of the year, the firm’s chief executive, Jonathan Brennan-Badal, said in an interview Monday night.

The decision to close a key piece of the city’s pandemic infrastructure comes at a time when Covid cases are climbing to their highest levels since New York’s sixth wave this summer.

Transmission in New York City jumped in the days following the Thanksgiving holiday, and as of late last week, there were some 3,700 cases being reported each day., according to city data. About 13.2 percent of laboratory tests were coming back positive over a seven-day average, a significant jump from the rates in September and October, when test positivity was mostly below 10 percent.

The number of daily cases does not include those identified through at-home testing kits, which more New Yorkers have turned to as they’ve become more available and as the city’s testing sites have shuttered.

Some health experts hoped the Pandemic Response Lab would become an enduring addition to New York City’s medical infrastructure, providing cheap, large-scale laboratory testing capacity for future health needs — or the next pandemic.

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But Mr. Brennan-Badal said the prevalence of at-home tests, the diminishing danger of infection and a reduction in business drove the company’s decision to close its testing operation. In recent months, the lab was testing just a few thousand samples a day, compared to more than 40,000 at earlier points. He likened the lab to “a wartime operation” whose need had passed.

“For me, it’s the end of an era and I’m so happy that we can be winding down,” said Mr. Brennan-Badal, whose company, Opentrons, makes robotics for biology laboratories and cell-engineering services.

The city’s recent increase in Covid cases may have been driven by the spread of XBB, a hybrid of two different BA.2 subvariants, which by mid-November made up 14 percent of cases in New York City, compared with 6 percent at the start of the month, according to a sample of cases sequenced at laboratories that include the Pandemic Response Lab. (More recent data is not yet available.) The XBB form of the virus is particularly effective at evading antibodies from previous infections or vaccination, health officials have said.

The city has been dialing down its pandemic response efforts for months, following Omicron’s initial, lightning-fast spread a year ago, when the city was suddenly awash in illness. And the testing problems of the past — when it could take hours of waiting in line to get your nose swabbed and days, if not a week or more, to learn the results — have vanished, due to the availability of at-home tests.

The city’s public hospital system, which oversaw New York’s testing program, says that the city can rely on a large network of commercial and hospital laboratories for its needs. “Our capacity and turnaround time for all Covid-19 testing will remain the same,” the city’s hospital system, Health and Hospitals, said in a statement.

Still, some public health experts worried that dismantling pandemic infrastructure might be a mistake.

The city has been winding down its pandemic response efforts for months.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

Dr. Jay Varma, the epidemiologist who helped shape Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pandemic response for much of 2020 and 2021, was instrumental in bringing the lab into being in 2020. He said it was clear that to manage Covid, New York City needed a mass testing program and that the turnaround times at most commercial laboratories were unacceptably long.

“There needed to be a lab that was big enough for New York City and largely answerable to New York City,” said Dr. Varma, who is a member of a scientific advisory board for the lab.

Dr. Varma, now a professor at Weill Cornell Medical School, said he understood that at the moment there was little pressing need for the Pandemic Response Lab. But he said he had hoped the city would continue to fund the operation at a level to keep it open, “as an insurance policy against the need you’ll have in the future.”

Mr. Brennan-Badal said that the city had paid the lab roughly $150 million in connection with its testing operation, which, he said, on a per test basis was a small fraction of what larger national laboratory businesses were charging.

The company will continue its sequencing effort, but fold it into another part of the company, Mr. Brennan-Badal said. Determining which variants are on the rise in New York City and even in which neighborhoods is a key part of the city’s surveillance program.

The closure of the mass testing facility, on Manhattan’s East Side, means that between 100 and 150 lab employees will lose their jobs early next year, Mr. Brennan-Badal said.

Should the need arise for a mass testing facility in New York in the future, he said the company was ready to help other facilities “rapidly scale up testing volume” or even reopen the lab.

“There are more efficient ways to rapidly scale up testing volume than having an underutilized lab operation,” he said. “That’s our fundamental point of view.”

The lab’s upcoming closure was first reported by Bloomberg.

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