In the early days of COVID-19, as the virus quickly swept across the globe, Oklahoma State University researchers rapidly mobilized to begin studying the pathogen.
The COVID-19 Diagnostic Laboratory was set up as a way for OSU to contribute to the national and state health efforts. Started back in March, the lab has returned over 100,000 test results since its creation and is responsible for about 15% of all the testing in the state, according to a university news release.
The Vice President of Research at OSU, Dr. Kenneth Sewell, has overseen the COVID-19 Diagnostic Laboratory’s efforts from the beginning.
In the earliest days of the lab, Sewell said researchers from across OSU’s campus came together and offered up what resources they had to fight the pandemic. Early on, the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory was determined to have the FDA required machines necessary for testing, he said.
“We had the whole setup in place at the Animal Diagnostic Lab,” Sewell said.
In order to test in humans, Sewell said the lab needed to pull from the expertise of researchers at OSU Medical, located in Tulsa. With talent from across OSU campuses and specialized equipment from the Animal Diagnostic Lab, the COVID-19 Diagnostic Lab was ready to get started.
As the number of cases ramped up across the country, the lab had to grow with it. According to OSU’s COVID lab website, Dr. Sewell sent out a mass email calling for any available volunteers to help facilitate research. In the span of two hours, he received over 150 responses, and now has over 160 people contributing to the OSU COVID-19 lab.
Additionally, Sewell said the Vice President of Finance and Administration at OSU increased funding to the lab to outfit it with more equipment. Sewell said the lab is now big enough to analyze massive amounts of COVID-19 tests, as well as carry out its original duties of protecting Oklahoma from pandemics in livestock. He also said the increased volume of staff has allowed many researchers and professors to return to their own labs and duties, in plenty of time for the new academic semester.
Today, according to Sewell, the OSU laboratory contracts with medical centers across the state of Oklahoma to retrieve samples for testing. OSU receives payment from the state by the volume of tests completed, which Sewell said he hopes will help repay the cost of the equipment for the updated laboratory. He also said the lab reports its data to the state epidemiologist in Oklahoma City, who creates a comprehensive map of the results in order to track the spread of the pandemic and inform public policy. According to OSU’s COVID lab website, the OSU Diagnostic Laboratory can return results in as little as 48 hours, which aids the epidemiologist in creating a map that is as up to date as possible.
The process starts when a person goes to a medical facility somewhere in Oklahoma, Sewell said. They receive a nose swab (which researchers have affectionately dubbed a “brain tickler”), which will provide researchers with a tissue sample. That sample, Sewell explained, is then placed in a special solution in a vial to preserve it, which is then shipped to the OSU Diagnostic Lab.
At the lab, each sample goes through a process called PCR, which Sewell said reproduces genetic material in the tissue so that researchers have enough to work with. The sample genetic material is then tested in a machine for the markers that indicate the presence of the virus, and results are returned.
Moving forward, Sewell said he hopes to increase the university’s efforts toward coronavirus research, including ways in which future pandemics may be mitigated or avoided altogether. To this end, Sewell said many OSU faculty are training in safety procedures so that they can research respiratory and infectious diseases.
Additionally, the NIH is increasing funding for projects related to respiratory diseases in the hopes that coronavirus research will increase in popularity. While OSU isn’t directly working on a vaccine, researchers are working to prevent future pandemics, and to fight the one we’re currently in.