Why Indiana Doesn’t Want This Indianapolis Lab’s Coronavirus Test Kits

A doctor in a protective suit taking a nasal swab from a person to test for possible coronavirus infection.

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“Thanks, but no thanks.”

That was the Indiana State Department of Health’s response to an Indianapolis lab’s offer last Thursday to donate as many coronavirus test kits as Indiana needed to expand testing to asymptomatic individuals. Zak Khan, a Carmel resident who co-owns the former northside toxicology lab, Aria Diagnostics, is now supervising the assembly of as many as 100,000 coronavirus test kits per week—and shipping 50,000 of those to New York City for the next eight weeks. That’s more than the 48,396 tests Indiana had performed—total—since the outbreak began as of Wednesday afternoon. 

Yet Khan says that when he talked to Indiana State Health Commissioner Kristina Box by phone last Thursday, April 9, she declined his offer to provide as many kits as the state needed. She did, however, indicate that the state was short on swabs—so Khan dropped off 2,000 at 7:15 a.m. the following morning. 

Khan, whose company donated 50,000 kits to New York City this week and is selling the city 50,000 per week for the next two months at a cost of $3.57 per kit, says Indiana is only concerned with testing symptomatic individuals. Box said during the governor’s daily briefing on Wednesday that the state is close to being able to test everyone in that population. Box also noted on Monday that the state wants to expand testing to high-risk individuals, such as those with underlying medical conditions.

“Our first priority is our community, our city, and the state.”

But for Khan, that isn’t good enough. He believes everyone needs to be tested—and he’s willing to do everything he can to make that happen. “Look at what’s happening in Iceland,” he says. “They’re testing everyone, sick and healthy. Half of people who tested positive were asymptomatic.” In the United States, the CDC has estimated that as many as 25 percent of people who contract the virus may never show symptoms.

Unlike Indiana, Carmel is testing all city employees and first responders, regardless of whether they’re showing symptoms. Khan says eight of the 733 people Aria had tested in Carmel as of Saturday had tested positive, four of whom were asymptomatic.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb acknowledged Wednesday that the state health department had been in contact with Aria about testing, but said a partnership is “not in the plan.” The state’s Joint Information Center says the state health department continues to recommend testing only for those at the highest risk due to “challenges getting testing supplies.” 

“ISDH has been working diligently to expand testing through partnerships with Eli Lilly and the addition of other labs,” the Center wrote in an email on Wednesday. “The number of tests reported to ISDH has increased tenfold in recent weeks, but supplies are still needed in Indiana to expand testing here.” 

Khan says Aria could provide up to 50,000 kits per week to help the state test every Hoosier who wants to be screened (Aria can currently produce 100,000 kits per week, 50,000 of which are contracted to New York City, but hopes to ramp up to 150,000.) And Khan says he’d offer them for free if the state health department didn’t have the budget to pay for them. “If the state needs kits and doesn’t have the budget to purchase them from us, then I will donate them,” he says. “Absolutely.”

Khan founded Aria in 2015 as a toxicology screening lab for narcotics and opioids with his Carmel High School classmate and molecular biologist Vipin Adhlakha. The company pivoted to full-time coronavirus test kit processing and assembly a few weeks ago, and Khan says it’s been a steep learning curve — he had to hire an all-new team to assemble the kits and schedule tests. (Employees wear full PPE, including face shields, gloves, and what Khan calls the “full bunny suits” found in operating rooms.) Many of the new hires are furloughed workers from local restaurants like Anthony’s Chophouse in Carmel.

“If the state needs kits and doesn’t have the budget to purchase them from us, then I will donate them.”

The deal with New York City came about after Khan heard New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ask for the private sector’s help to alleviate the shortage of kits. Khan reached out to Mayor Bill De Blasio through Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard to offer to donate 50,000. “I just wanted to do whatever I could to help,” he says. “People were dying, and I had to act.” But Brainard, he says, had a grander vision.

“Let’s provide a template for other cities,” Khan says Brainard suggested. “Let’s enable them to become self-sufficient. Rather than getting them hooked on Aria, we can teach them how to produce their own kits.” New York City agreed to purchase 50,000 kits from Aria for up to eight weeks, after which the goal is for the city to be able to create their own. “Or if they’re ready to do that after six weeks, that’s awesome,” Khan says. “I want them to become self-sufficient.”

A nurse holds a swab for the coronavirus/ COVID-19 test.

Khan’s new business model doesn’t exactly lend itself to profit. He’s yet to see a dime from insurance companies, and he and Adhlakha are cutting checks from their personal bank accounts (he recently took out a $4 million loan). He loses money on every test he performs for a Medicare patient, for instance—the approximately $50 he receives for each test is less than half the $130 raw cost—but he says he’s committed to testing everyone because it’s the right thing to do. “I might go broke doing it,” he says. “But at least afterward, my children will say, ‘Gosh, Dad, you did the right thing.’” 

Now he just wishes Indiana, a state providing daily updates on its shortage of testing supplies, would accept his help. “We don’t have contracts with other states, so we potentially have 50,000 kits available for Indiana each week,” Khan says. “Our first priority is our community, our city, and the state.”

Anyone can get a test at Aria’s drive-up facility at 5635 West 96th Street regardless of whether they have a doctor’s order, though one is required to bill their insurance. Aria offers the test for a $175 cash payment. Khan says secure online payment and client portals will soon be available on the company’s website, with results available within 48 hours. 

He says that if the state is listening, he wants it to know that Aria is ready to assist in whatever way needed. “They have my number,” he says. “It’s just a matter of if they need something, let me know. If that’s 50,000 kits per week for the next eight weeks, we’d give them to them. Please reach out; we’re happy to help.”