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18th Dental Squadron creates COVID-19 test swabs

Photo of COVID-19 testing

Staff Sgt. Guadalupe Flores, 18th Dental Squadron dental technician, inspects 3D printed COVID-19 testing swabs at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, June 3, 2020. The 18th Dental Squadron focused it’s efforts during the early stages of the pandemic to find innovative ways to help fight against COVID-19, such as 3D printing testing swabs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Daryn Murphy)

Photo of COVID-19 testing.

A rack of 3D printed COVID-19 testing swabs await inspection at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, June 3, 2020. The 18th Dental Squadron focused its efforts during the early stages of the pandemic to find innovative ways to help fight against COVID-19, such as 3D printing testing swabs.

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan --

While we’ve seen no new cases of COVID-19 on Okinawa, the threat of the pandemic is still very real.  The Regional Dental Laboratory, which falls under the 18th Dental Squadron, has played an instrumental role in the 18th Wing’s innovation efforts to help flatten the curve.

The RDL wasted no time in using their 3D printing capabilities to create face shields, door handle openers, and other personal protective equipment when protective measures were first implemented on base.

“With the reduction in patients due to the pandemic, we switched gears by using our innovation and expertise in our field to find new ways to treat patients or help the base,” said Staff Sgt. Guadalupe Flores, Dental Technician, 18th Dental Squadron.

Along with personal protective equipment, the RDL began producing nasopharyngeal swabs with 3D printers to help support COVID-19 testing.

When faced with COVID-19, members started reading articles addressing the nasopharyngeal swab and found out the lab’s 3D printer company, Formlabs, was working with the University of South Florida and Northwell Health to manufacture NP swabs, explained Tech. Sgt. Samuel Brown, CAD/CAM NCO in charge, 18th Dental Squadron.

The NP swabs are narrow sticks made of a plastic rod that’s covered with absorbent material, which collects nasal secretions from the back of the nose and throat. Once the swabs are 3D printed, they’re washed, cured, quality controlled, sterilized, packaged and then labeled. 

To ensure the safety of patients, the dental lab is following an NP swab 3D printing workflow document provided by the joint forces of the 3D printing company, the university and New York’s largest healthcare provider.

In order to gain Federal Drug Administration approval, two requirements must be met.

Legal and medical guidelines are one requirement and clinical trials are the other, Flores explained.

Kadena doesn’t have enough patients for clinical trials – fortunately – which means no FDA approval as of now, he said. However, this hasn’t stopped the unit from finding outside-the-box innovations to help fight COVID-19.

Despite not being able to get FDA approval themselves, the team is sharing their groundwork for the swabs with other Air Force Medical Treatment Facilities in an effort to help bases across the world create tests with an expedited approval process.

Not only does this help during the current and potential future pandemics, but it also allows the RDL to expand on skills that aren’t necessarily used in the day-to-day dental operations.

“What we do on the day-to-day basis is just help people,” said Tech. Sgt. Christian Kendall, Dental Technician, 18th Dental Squadron, “In this case it allowed us to branch out and excel and really work on other areas that we don’t usually get the time to work on … Being able to research and manufacture multiple products just to try to help out during the current pandemic.”