VDL COVID-19 testing

Stepping Up

Deep in the bowels of the College of Veterinary Medicine is a new lab. But don’t let its location fool you. This may be the most important lab right now on Iowa State University campus.

The new facility (Public Health Testing Services) was created by the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Rodger Main in response to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, the VDL worked closely with the State Hygienic Lab at the University of Iowa in helping that facility meet the crush of testing requirements in Iowa.

The VDL transferred much-needed equipment and provided the State Hygienic Lab (SHL) with reagents daily to help assist the high thru-put PCR system. That assistance dramatically increased the number of tests the State Hygienic Lab has been able to process on a daily basis during those early days of the COVID-19 response in Iowa.

“By the third week of April it was apparent we needed do more,” Main said. “We had to add some additional capacity, not just helping the State Hygienic Lab, but also setting up a unit in the College of Veterinary Medicine where we could do testing.”

The new, state-of-the-art lab was set up in a matter of a few weeks. A new IT system was created to support the human health care use. Main and his team went to work getting the certifications necessary to do human clinical work as well as establishing contractual agreements to do testing.

Since mid-June the new Public Health Testing Services (PHTS) has been obtaining results from submissions from Iowa State’s Thielen Student Health Center for both PCR (COVID-19 testing) and serology (antibody-based testing). The unit soon expanded to service local health care providers’ needs in central Iowa.

Then the students started to move back to campus to start the fall semester.

“The volume has really ramped up with student testing,” Main said.

On an average day, the PHTS currently processes approximately 1,200 PCR and serology tests. Main says the unit’s daily capacity can far exceed that number if necessary.

What is even more impressive how quickly the PHTS gets the results back to the individual being tested.

“Dr. (Anthony) Fauci has commented the problem nationally is the delay in getting test results back,” Main said. “Many times it takes five, six, even ten days before an individual gets their results.”

“At the VDL we have a 24-hour turnaround with test results. That’s monumentally important and a key element of Iowa State’s testing program that we’re very proud of.”

Main cites the working relationship established between the VDL and the SHL as a “silver-lining” to the COVID-19 experience.

“Dr. Michael Pentella and his team at the SHL have simply been tremendous to work with and staunch supporters of our efforts at the VDL,” Main said. “I believe the highly synergistic relationships established between the VDL and the SHL hold the promise for benefitting animal health, human health and the State of Iowa long after the current pandemic ends.”

“What the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory is accomplishing in supporting the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is truly a great example of how Iowa State University is prepared to

and can respond to the needs of Iowans,” said Dr. Dan Grooms, the Dr. Stephen G. Juelsgaard Dean of Veterinary medicine.

It should come as no surprise that the VDL can produce these type of results. The Iowa State facility is the largest food animal veterinary diagnostic lab in North America, processing more than 100,000 cases and performing more than 1.25 million tests annually.

“The core competency and capacities derived from running that system on a daily basis is why we can take on this human health care aspect during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Main said.

And the VDL is continuing to reach out to assist the state of Iowa. The PHTS has been designed a Reference Lab, allowing it to further expand their testing capabilities to local and regional healthcare providers.

Already the PHTS is screening serology tests from an Iowa blood bank. The results of the antibody tests will not only be reported to provide feedback to donors, but also identify possible plasma donations for COVID-19 treatments.