OSU Veterinary Lab Tests For COVID-19

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has received a federal certification that will allow it to streamline and ramp up its COVID-19 testing capacity.

Since mid-April, the OVDL, working with Corvallis-based Willamette Valley Toxicology Laboratory, has run more than 32,000 COVID-19 tests for patients across the state and beyond, mostly from long-term care facilities and hospitals, as well as Oregon State University’s coronavirus community prevalence project, TRACE-COVID-19.

When the OVDL, which is housed in OSU’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, first sought to test human samples at the beginning of the pandemic, directors had to find a workaround because the lab had the equipment and knowledge to run human samples but lacked the needed federal clearance. So it partnered with WVT, a private lab that had the certification.

With its own Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the OVDL can now conduct every step of the testing on-site, though it will still be contracting with WVT for billing and administration.

Justin Sanders, assistant professor and section head of molecular diagnostics in the OVDL, said it feels good to use their lab’s capacity and expertise to help fight the coronavirus, despite the stress and some sleepless nights.

“Early on, I could see that this was not going to be a short-term situation,” he said. “I guess I’m surprised that there’s still really no coordinated response on the federal level, but I feel really good about what we’re doing here.”

The OVDL-WVT partnership strives to get test results back to patients within about 48 hours, even when running up to 1,000 tests per day. Some commercial labs take up to two weeks to send test results back, Sanders said, by which point the results are outdated and irrelevant.

The OVDL will also be in charge of COVID-19 testing for OSU students and employees once fall term begins. The university plans for at least 90% of instruction at its Corvallis campus to be delivered remotely, but some students will still be living on campus. The TRACE-OSU effort, an extension of OSU’s TRACE-COVID-19 community prevalence project, plans to initially test a random sample of about 1,000 students, faculty and staff per week. Sanders is a co-principal investigator on the project.

To accommodate the increased workload, OVDL staff stagger their hours to complete all COVID-19 testing on top of animal diagnostic testing, which is their main function. The OVDL is part of a nationwide network of veterinary labs equipped to test livestock for infectious diseases, and also tests for a wide range of animal health conditions including those with public health significance, such as rabies.

Past avian flu outbreaks have required the OVDL to run hundreds of tests per day, so the lab was a perfect fit to manage a high volume of COVID-19 tests, despite not experiencing a human outbreak like this before, said Donna Mulrooney, lab supervisor for the molecular and virology sections of the OVDL.

Moving forward, questions remain, said Dr. Mark Ackermann, director of the OVDL and a professor and board-certified pathologist in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine. He said the biggest factor in their ongoing work is also the most unpredictable: How much testing will be required in the coming months, based on the national, state and university-level COVID-19 response?

Funding is also still a question. The OVDL had to purchase new equipment to run all the COVID-19 tests, and that money came from the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, rather than a federal COVID-19 relief program. The lab still needs more pathologists to handle the workload.

“It is tragic that the current federal administration has not arranged free testing for all and provided adequate resources,” Ackermann said. “If we were not testing, our clients — like Samaritan Health Services, the community, and TRACE — could have been stuck with slow turnaround times.”