CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the number of COVID-19 cases grows, hospitals worldwide are straining to find the medical supplies necessary to test and treat infected patients.
When Samaritan Health Services asked Oregon State University last week if there was anything the university could do to help, scientists in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine realized their diagnostic lab 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, this fluid was a bottleneck in Samaritan’s ability to continue testing, said researcher Justin Sanders, section head of the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at OSU.
The veterinary lab, in contrast to human hospitals, still makes many 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 infectious disease specialist Dr. Adam Brady at Samaritan confirmed last week that they needed VTM, Sanders coordinated with virologist Wendy Black in the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at OSU. They verified with protocols published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the production of COVID-specific viral transport medium and Black made 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.
The actual production process only took about an hour; coordinating between multiple researchers was the only challenging part, especially because so many people wanted to join the effort, Sanders said.
“I think it’s incredible,” he said. “To me, that’s a pretty cool reason to be challenged – absolutely everybody wanted to help.”
OSU’s Interim Vice President for Research Irem Tumer agreed: “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 crises,” 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.