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Justin Sanders sitting in lab

Microbiology alum helps produce critical COVID-19 test component for Oregon hospitals

By Molly Rosbach

Justin Sanders, section head of the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU

As the number of COVID-19 cases grows, hospitals worldwide are straining to find the medical supplies necessary to test and treat infected patients. Scientists at Oregon State are working to find solutions.

When Samaritan Health Services asked Oregon State University last week if there was anything the university could do to help, researches in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine realized their laboratories already had all the ingredients and equipment to make the fluid needed to transport patient samples to testing facilities.

Testing for COVID-19 involves sticking a specialized swab deep into the nose. To move those swabs to a testing facility, medical providers must store them in tubes full of viral transport medium (VTM), a specific liquid that protects the virus’s genetic material until the swab can be tested.

Historically hospitals made their own VTM, but for decades most medical facilities have bought it pre-made. With the medical supply chain thrown off by the global demand for COVID-19 materials, lack of this fluid was a bottleneck in Samaritan’s ability to continue testing, explained Justin Sanders, a 2013 microbiology Ph.D. alum who is now section head of the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU.

In contrast to human hospitals, the veterinary lab still makes most of its media by hand. And the lab happened to have everything necessary to make the VTM in a sterile environment, including an autoclave to sterilize water, buffered salts and bovine serum.

“It’s funny — this is one of these very old-school sorts of things that, because we’re a vet school, a lot of these types of procedures are very routinely done,” Sanders said. “And hospitals simply don’t have the capacity.”

After Samaritan infectious disease specialist Adam Brady, also an OSU microbiology alum, confirmed last week that they needed VTM, Sanders coordinated with virologist Wendy Black in the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at OSU. They verified protocols published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow the production of COVID-specific viral transport medium, making 3 liters of the fluid.

Each tube needs 3 milliliters of fluid to properly store a test swab, so 3 liters is enough for 1,000 tests.

“Without it, they would not be able to collect samples,” Sanders said.

OSU’s Interim Vice President for Research Irem Tumer stated: “I am super impressed by the lightning-fast response to the request to produce these supplies and inspired to see what our faculty and staff can do in times of crisis,” she said.

Whether OSU is asked to produce more of the fluid will likely depend on whether Oregon’s testing capacity grows, Sanders said: If there are no more test kits, hospitals won’t be able to send swabs anyway. Nationwide, manufacturers are working to quickly increase production of both nasopharyngeal swabs and viral transport medium to meet the health care demand as testing increases.

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