Alma Alumna Working to Bring Down COVID-19 Testing Costs

Identifying virus in sample sooner is key to research by Sarah Cox-Vazquez ’15

Sarah Cox-Vazquez Sarah Cox-VazquezALMA — Since the start of the pandemic, organizations and countries around the world have struggled with the testing costs of COVID-19. Sarah Cox-Vazquez ’15, an Alma College alumna living in Singapore, hopes to change that.

Cox-Vazquez is working to develop a new way of testing samples possibly infected with COVID-19 that will get results out faster and more accurately. From thousands of miles away, she says, she hopes the research will eventually save her own country — and the entire world — billions of dollars.

“Millions of people have been tested in the United States and it has cost us more than $30 billion,” Cox-Vazquez said. “Those numbers are obviously growing every day. If we’re able to reduce the time it takes to detect the virus, we can save a lot of that money — and potentially a lot of lives.”

Cox-Vazquez explained she is primarily working with the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, commonly known as a nasal swab test. When scientists inspect those nasal swabs, they are seeking the genetic material for COVID-19 present in an individual. If that genetic material could be amplified, she said, it would be easier to detect COVID-19.

PCR tests generally take two to three days to process, but Cox-Vazquez hopes her research could eventually cut that time down to two or three hours.

“The current wait time creates a system in which the labs testing for COVID-19 are completely backed up,” Cox-Vazquez said. “This research could change that.”

Cox-Vazquez and her team, led by Guillermo Bazan at the National University in Singapore, are currently working to establish a pattern with their testing, which would allow it to be taken to a commercial level — not solely used for academic purposes. She added that the processes involved wouldn’t only benefit detection of COVID-19, but any kind of virus.

“COVID-19 is definitely a hot topic right now, so this is really exciting research,” Cox-Vazquez said. “I’m grateful that I was able to experience all that I saw at Alma College, including my first research opportunities.”

After graduating from Alma with a degree in biology, Cox-Vazquez attended the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 2019 with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Within a month of her graduation from U-M, she and husband Ricardo Vazquez — a fellow researcher at National University — were offered fellowships in Singapore.

“It’s a long way from home,” said Cox-Vazquez, a native of Lake Fenton, “but it was an interesting opportunity. We’re at a point in life where it’s pretty easy to pick up and move halfway across the world. All we needed to bring was our cat.”

Together, the couple lives with their cat in a 40-story high-rise apartment complex in one of the most population-dense countries in the world, on the island of Singapore, located off the coast of the South China Sea. Cox-Vazquez pointed out that despite the island’s density, it has not seen the level of COVID-19 infection that some other countries have, for several reasons.

“Your temperature gets taken everywhere you go,” she said. “Masks are now required, but I saw people wearing masks around before the pandemic even started. Singapore shut down fairly early and was able to flatten the curve quickly. We aren’t out of it just yet, though.”

Cox-Vazquez said she and her family intend to move back to the United States in the next few years. By then, she hopes, the COVID-19 pandemic will long be over — and that her research will have played a role in seeing to its end.

“The people are amazing here, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to pursue this research under Dr. Bazan. It means a lot to me to be doing this work and, hopefully, help put an end to this terrible time we’re all going through,” she said.

Story published on February 15, 2021