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As Cuomo Pushes For More Testing, Questions Remain About How And Where It Will Happen

Testing people for the coronavirus, and immunity against it, has emerged as a key element to getting a handle on the public health crisis. But bringing widespread testing to reality brings with it a litany of logistical challenges.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo inspecting a testing site amid the pandemic

In New York, where the death toll from the virus stands at more than 15,000 people, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week vowed to expand diagnostic and antibody tests from 20,000 to 40,000 a day. Last week, he signed an executive order requiring all private and public labs that can run the tests to work together with the state’s Department of Health.

"We need several weeks to ramp up to that, but it is a very aggressive goal," Cuomo said at a Tuesday press conference. "That is our current system at maximum. Our current laboratory system, seven days a week, 24 hours a day."

"If we could double our tests, that would be a home run," he added. "That is a really, really big deal.”

The state government will be handling testing, he said following a meeting with President Donald Trump. Nationally, a scarcity of supplies and vexed supply chains has held back testing, but Cuomo said the federal government will take responsibility for improving the national manufacturing supply chain for the test and billionaire Michael Bloomberg would help the state create a testing and tracing program.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to set up sites across New York City that will operate outside clinic and hospital settings. Five walk-in sites had opened as of Monday, and the city is planning to open three more, one each in Brooklyn, the Bronx and on the Lower East Side. Six sites are opening at or close to public housing properties, according to the city. 

Wexler Healthcare Properties' Paul Wexler, a broker who specializes in healthcare and life sciences space, told Bisnow he understands the city is now hunting for spaces across all five boroughs to create those walk-in testing facilities.

“They are 5K SF, ground-floor retail-type settings and medical office settings for short-term leases,” he said. “We are putting together a whole list of properties. The city is looking for RFPs from owners to evaluate the sites right now.”

Representatives from City Hall didn't respond to questions about the search by press time. New York Department of Health representatives said questions about sites were a matter for Empire State Development, while ESD referred Bisnow to the Department of Health.

Rendering of the Taystee Lab Building

As the crisis wears on the city, the complexities of making testing available to a wide section of the community is clear. Northwell Health, which has been working with the state on diagnostic testing for COVID-19, is running around 3,000 tests for the infection a day at its lab on Long Island. In the next 10 days, that capacity should double to 6,000 per day, Northwell Health Labs Medical Director Dr. Deborah Schron said in an interview.

It is also starting to run test for antibodies, which could be used as proof of immunity to the virus. Those kinds of tests will be rolled out to Northwell employees first, Schron said. The lab is not yet working with the state on antibody tests, but it would be open to forming the partnership, she added.

When asked what the crisis has demonstrated to New York's life sciences community, Schron said, "We have to ramp up the automated testing capacity, which we have done at Northwell so we can handle this."

Though still a nascent industry in New York City, many have been pushing to make life sciences and lab spaces a greater part of the commercial real estate ecosystem and local economy in the city. The city's supply of lab space is expected to go from 1.6M SF in 2019 to more than twice that than by 2021, per CBRE.

Multiple developers, like Deerfield Management, Alexandria Real Estate Equities and King Street Properties, are moving ahead with life sciences projects in the city.

Columbia University Professor of Biomedical Engineering Samuel Sia said the fallout of this crisis could mean increased investment in companies working on treatments for infectious diseases, which will have a ripple effect for real estate.

“I think we are going to see much greater support for companies to work in these areas,” he said. “A lot [of investors] haven’t been interested in funding this kind of work. That’s all changing.”

Janus Properties co-founder Scott Metzner, whose company is developing a 350K SF Class-A lab and office building on the site of the former Taystee bakery in West Harlem, said there was already a lot of interest in space for companies that were developing rapid testing before the crisis.

“We have spoken to a number of different public and private companies that have expressed interest — and some of which we've exchanged term sheets on — in having those types of laboratories in New York City,” he said. “This crisis is coming at the same time that this explosion in knowledge and research capability has occurred … It's inevitable that this industry is going to grow.”