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Spartan Alum, Medical Laboratory Scientists Test for COVID-19

COVID-19 CDC Illustration
This illustration, created at the CDC, reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by a novel coronavirus, named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The illness caused by this virus is called coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Credit: CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

Ever wonder who conducts tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus? Who is working to find treatments and a vaccine?

Across Michigan, the United States, and the globe, medical laboratory scientists – many trained by the Michigan State University Biomedical Laboratory Diagnostics Program (BLD) – are working around the clock to test for and inform the public about the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

“Generally, we do our testing during the typical workday. But at this point, when there is something such as this, we are expected to work evenings and weekends,” said MSU alum Kristine Smith, MT (ASCP) ’00, the unit manager of bacterial and viral serology in the Infectious Disease Division at the Bureau of Laboratories for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). “We're trying to get the specimens tested as soon as they come in – in 72 hours or less. The whole lab is coming together.”

CDC Covid-19 Test Collection Kit
A CDC’s laboratory test kit for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2).
Photo: www.cdc.gov

The MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories was the first in Michigan to test for COVID-19, receiving emergency use authorization test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Smith, the laboratory tests about 350 samples a day.

Smith says that to start the testing process for COVID-19, nasopharyngeal specimens (swabs from the back of the nose and upper throat) are collected from hospitals, clinics, and local health departments throughout the state using collection kits. These samples are then sent to our laboratory for testing.

Once samples arrive at the lab, scientists extract RNA, and an enzyme is used to convert that RNA into complementary-DNA. That DNA is then amplified many times using a laboratory technique known as rRT-PCR (real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction) so that enough material is made to be able to detect the COVID-19 disease.

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots.
Photo: CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL)

One COVID-19 run takes about 4-6 hours to complete, and medical laboratory scientists are working diligently to ensure accurate results.

“When you have something new like this, you have submitters that aren't used to sending specimens to the state lab for testing, so they really don't know the process,” Smith noted. “It's a lot of education along with making sure that we have the correct patient, the correct submitter and that the results get reported to the appropriate submitter that ordered the testing. It is so important to have scientists with the needed skills and knowledge along with integrity to ensure accurate results are reported.” 

In addition to the state laboratory, commercial laboratories, and hospital labs are now up and running COVID-19 testing in Michigan. To help ensure test kits remain available, it is important to communicate with doctors and other providers in prioritizing urgency for testing.

“You hear that everybody who wants to be tested can be tested.” Smith said. “Well, that's pretty much impossible at this point. Maybe down the line. Getting swabs and viral transport media has been difficult for us and for healthcare providers. As more testing platforms are becoming available, procuring resources hopefully soon won’t be an issue. At DHHS, we are testing specimens as they come in, but we are also trying to prioritize those who are more severely ill.”

John Gerlach BLD 832
John A. Gerlach, Ph.D., BLD Program director and professor, demonstrates laboratory techniques to students in BLD 832 - Molecular Pathology Laboratory.
Photo: MSU BLD

Medical laboratory scientists provide a pivotal piece to public and patient help, not just in pandemics.

“This profession is definitely needed,” Smith said. “And not just to perform testing such as COVID-19. I thought, what if we had all of our scientists busy doing COVID-19 testing? What about syphilis reporting, and Lyme reporting, and hepatitis, and some of the other diseases that we test for? That's all very important, too. Those patients need to be diagnosed and treated as well. So, there's definitely a demand for people who are able to test and report.”

As a noteworthy mention, an MSU alumni (who chooses to remain anonymous out of respect to other laboratorians working hard on COVID-19) was performing the PCR the evening the first couple of cases of COVID-19 were detected in Michigan.

Stay up to date with Michigan State University’s response to COVID-19 at www.msu.edu/coronavirus/.
Learn about the state’s response at www.michigan.gov/coronavirus/.
More information regarding test kits from the CDC can be found at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/lab/testing-laboratories.html 

Updated: 4/06/2020