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Posted on: March 16, 2021

Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory leads Manhattan’s fight against COVID-19

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Story by Piper Brandt, Kansas State University

Despite challenges, the team at the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has worked tirelessly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to offer testing to the Manhattan community and to discover innovative ways to improve the testing process.

Jamie Henningson, director of the KSVDL, said the lab has stepped up to provide invaluable services not only on a local level, but on a statewide and national level as well.

“Locally, KSVDL serves the university, health and surgical centers, nursing homes and hospitals,” Henningson said. “Using our capability and training through the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN), we were able to offer a one-day turnaround time — which resulted in immediate placement in quarantine and disinfection — plus keep surgical centers able to provide surgery to patients. Statewide, we were able to assist our KDHE counterparts to increase testing capacity for the state and alleviate burnout by providing time off for their staff.”

jamie-henningsonKSVDL is also currently aiding the state in surveillance for variants of SARS-CoV-2. Nationally, KSVDL serves a role in aiding human health while testing animals for zoonotic potential. These roles demonstrate the importance of the One Health Initiative and how veterinary diagnostic labs can impact both public and animal health.

“Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories, including KSVDL, have demonstrated that we have the expertise, capacity and capability to provide testing in human and animal disease outbreaks,” Henningson said. “The pandemic provided experience for VDLs in responding to an outbreak, which will be useful if the U.S. has to respond to a foreign animal disease in the future.”

Jianfa Bai, section head of molecular research and development at KSVDL, is currently tasked with monitoring test result accuracy. He said the testing process wouldn’t be possible without good teamwork.

“The samples are collected and delivered to receiving, then they will do accessioning, tell us how many samples we have by the end of the day and the following day we will begin processing the samples,” Bai said. “Most days, in the early afternoon, data can be reported. After that data is generated, they send it to me to look at and verify everything is accurate and there are no issues.”

After the data is verified, the results can be finalized and sent to clients, such as Lafene Health Center at Kansas State University and other community organizations in neighboring counties.

The testing process has come a long way since April of 2020, when staff often worked 10-12 hours a day to keep up with the new demand for COVD-19 testing on top of their usual veterinary testing duties.

Operations were originally housed in the Biosecurity Research Institute (BRI), which is a biological safety level 3 (BSL-3) facility that requires extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) and special training.

“BSL-3 is very safe, but very slow, which is a tradeoff,” Bai said. “If you handle a few hundred samples a day, it’s very challenging because the procedure you must follow is very slow. You hardly have a chance to drink, eat or go to the bathroom because you must take all your PPE off. It’s very time consuming.”

In October of 2020 the team was able to move all equipment and personnel into labs in Mosier Hall while operating under a BSL-2 enhanced setting that requires less rigorous safety measures. The relocation has sped up the testing process while making the work environment more comfortable for the team.

lance-nollThanks to the addition of an inactivation buffer used for sample collection, the testing process is now safer for the team and allows for less time-consuming PPE measures. The team has also recently been vaccinated for SARS-CoV-2, which provides another layer of safety.

“Before we moved out of the BRI to Mosier, we negotiated with Lafene to use a special inactivation buffer for sample collection,” Bai said. “When the sample is placed in the new buffer, the virus is inactivated so it’s no longer infectious, but the nucleic acid is still there and ready to be detected. This is a big way we are reducing potential infections, as there is nearly no chance of it now.”

Another way the team has sped up the testing process includes the development of a new assay that makes testing three times faster. The assay has been made available for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the filing of an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). The lab is now working on modifications of the assay to allow not only detection, but differentiation of the problematic variants of the virus that have originated from the U.K. and South Africa.    

“Dr. Bai had completed the early steps of test development, namely designing the primers and probes to be used in the assay,” said Lance Noll, supervising technician for the SARS-CoV-2 clinical testing lab. “When COVID-19 cases began to rise around the country and it was looking more likely that KSVDL may begin contributing to human testing efforts, we became laser-focused on validating the assay, which was my role in the process.”

Noll said it was a crunch to complete the research in such a short timeline, but the team prioritized the project to help combat the pandemic.

“We had a lot of irons in the fire. However, we knew it was important to get the work done so that we could have the option of using our lab-developed assay for human testing,” Noll said. “We knew it would provide as much sensitivity and specificity as commercially available assays, but at a much more economical price per sample.”

The many accomplishments of KSVDL over the past year prove they’re a strong team and have contributed much to the Manhattan community and beyond throughout the duration of the pandemic.

“Going forward, we hope that VDLs can serve public health in a greater capacity than we have in the past,” Henningson said. “Part of the veterinarian oath states that veterinarians should promote public health and the advancement of medical knowledge. Throughout the pandemic, VDLs have proven we can do just that.”

Learn more about the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory.

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