Posted September 24, 2020

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Testing human samples for SARS-CoV-2 begins in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory’s Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory. Samples are handled in biosafety cabinets by personnel wearing a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR).

Veterinary medicine might not be the first line of defense against COVID-19, but these healthcare professionals have the skills, knowledge and competency to make an impact. Diagnosticians at the Michigan State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, part of the College of Veterinary Medicine, have the ability to test both animal and human samples for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans. Beginning Monday, September 21, the Laboratory will test samples collected on-campus daily (Monday through Friday morning), providing results to MSU Health Care within 24 hours or less.

The Laboratory has the capacity to conduct 1,000 COVID tests per day.

Ever on alert for emerging threats, MSU veterinary medicine experts began monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in late January. As the situation evolved, the MSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, or VDL, developed a test for animals. At the same time, they used protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to set up and validate a diagnostic test for human samples so that the VDL would be prepared if additional testing capacity was needed. In late July, the MSU re-opening task force reviewed the VDL’s capabilities and asked for expanded capacity to help protect the campus community.

“On average, the Lab receives about 700 cases daily from veterinarians across the country and around the world. Personnel at the MSU VDL have deep expertise and experience with many methods to rapidly identify diseases, as well as proven capabilities to provide high-volume testing in outbreak situations,” says VDL’s outgoing director Dr. Rachel Reams.

The Laboratory – fully accredited by the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians – is uniquely positioned to step in and support COVID-19 testing during the current health crisis when laboratory capacity and rapid turnaround time is crucial for identifying and controlling community spread.

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Dr. Steve Bolin processes samples in a biosafety cabinet.

"The Laboratory is well-versed in processing infectious disease samples, including those with potential to infect humans. In fact, the building was designed to facilitate testing for a zoonotic disease outbreak, with enhanced biosafety spaces for safe handling and containment of high-consequence diseases,” said Dr. Steven Bolin, professor and MSU VDL associate director.

Bolin and a team of six laboratory technologists in the VDL’s immunodiagnostics section were responsible for setting up and conducting SARS-CoV-2 testing.

“What we did not expect when designing those features was that we would be called upon by our human health colleagues to respond to a human health crisis of this magnitude. In the last four months, we spent hundreds of hours creating, obtaining and evaluating methods, reagents and equipment for diagnostic use in animals and humans for detection of infections with SARS-CoV-2.”

The VDL diagnosticians faced a challenge switching from animal samples to human samples; while the processes, procedures, supplies and equipment are the same or similar for both human and veterinary labs, all laboratory testing performed on humans in the United States is regulated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments, or CLIA. Establishing standard operating procedures for human testing and securing supplies were only part of the process.

The MSU VDL partnered with Dr. John Gerlach, Olin Student Health Center laboratory director and program director of MSU’s Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics program, to oversee testing of human samples at the MSU VDL. Samples will be collected by MSU Health Care and transferred to the VDL for testing.

“It was a very short hurdle to have the VDL CLIA ready. The accrediting body they already work under has many of the same goals and similar regulations. It was really a matter of aligning documentation of compliance with Olin’s process. The VDL has a great group of dedicated laboratory professionals,” Gerlach said.

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Lindsy Hengesbach, immunodiagnostics academic specialist, uses a special pipette to add reagent to the sample plate to prepare samples for the next phase of testing.

Bolin and others at the Laboratory worked closely with both Gerlach and officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or MDHHS, especially those at the MDHHS laboratory, to ensure that the MSU VDL was prepared to begin testing when/if needed.

To help the MSU VDL increase potential test capacity from 100 samples per day to 1,000 samples per day by September, MDHHS provided a test kit for the Laboratory to adapt and verify a procedure that can run three times more samples than the standard CDC format. To meet the need for additional resources to achieve capacity goals, MSU President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., M.D. prioritized funding to cover these start-up costs. Despite supply chain challenges, the new instruments arrived days before the first samples were delivered for testing.

“The Laboratory has proven invaluable to the State of Michigan when we have faced threats to animal health. Now, we can provide support as we face perhaps the greatest human health threat of our lifetimes,” says VDL’s new interim director Dr. James Averill. “We’re here and we’re ready.”

The MSU VDL, a service unit in the College of Veterinary Medicine, is a premier, full-service, fully accredited veterinary diagnostic laboratory for all species. On average, the lab performs one million tests per year on approximately 200,000 cases for more than 300,000 animals. The MSU VDL is a member of key federal networks charged with protecting human and animal health, and their core diagnostics, innovative solutions, and expert service have earned them clients in all 50 states, U.S. territories, and more than 20 foreign countries. The lab serves approximately 9,000 clients per year.

MSUToday: MSU Vet Lab Begins Testing Human Samples for COVID-19