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When bottlenecks showed up in COVID-19 testing in Buffalo, UB researchers and colleagues quickly stepped up to help

test tubes

These 500 tubes of viral transport media, prepared by the UB team on April 6, will safely transport COVID-19 specimens. It took approximately 2 hours to generate the tubes pictured. 

BUFFALO, N.Y. — It’s a national issue: not enough tests or testing materials for COVID-19. To most of us, it’s another thing that feels awful, but out of our control during this unprecedented global pandemic.

To members of the research community, it’s a call to action.

Anthony A. Campagnari, PhD, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of microbiology and immunology at UB, heard that call when a colleague sent an email noting a need for more viral transport media, or VTM. Campagnari and his colleagues throughout the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB quickly teamed up. The result? They are now providing Kaleida Health with approximately 1,000 tubes of VTM each week.

The email came from John Tomaszewski, MD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Peter A. Nickerson, PhD, chair of the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School and clinical chief of service at Kaleida Health Laboratories, a position that put him at the heart of the COVID-19 testing process for Kaleida Health.

They were fortunate: Kaleida Health had agreed years before to host at its Center for Laboratory Medicine an important piece of laboratory instrumentation called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine. The machine allows for the detection of viral nucleic acids, and the methodology can be designed to specifically identify COVID-19 in clinical samples.

The machine was provided by Abbott Laboratories to support the clinical research of Andrew Talal, MD, professor of medicine in the Jacobs School, and a leading researcher on hepatitis C virus.

“There have been issues with laboratory testing capacity everywhere,” said Tomaszewski, also president of UBMD Pathology. “This partnership between UB and Kaleida Health came about because of the clinical trial research of one of our faculty members and now it’s become a critical piece of the community’s COVID-19 response.”

Talal added: “This was an opportunity for research and clinical care to proceed harmoniously, so that during this pandemic, we could take advantage of the placement of this machine within Kaleida as a research tool. The machine has traditionally been used to measure the level of hepatitis C virus in the blood and liver, investigation that is supported by the Kaleida Health Foundation. This is an illustration of how the foundation’s support is directly enabling us to improve the health of the community.”

“We have leveraged this machine to do testing for COVID-19 and it’s the only reason we are doing any testing,” Tomaszewski added. “This is because of the UB academic-health center partnership and the interaction between the clinical research at UB and the clinical treatment that’s going on at Kaleida Health.”

Lack of viral transport media

But while the machine increased the area’s testing capacity, there was not enough viral transport media (VTM) to support the samples that needed testing.

“In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the nasopharyngeal swab that is used to take a sample from the patient is placed directly into a tube of sterile VTM,” said Campagnari, senior associate dean for research in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “So every COVID-19 test that involves a nasal swab utilizes VTM.”

Viral transport media are critical for any tests involving viral detection, he explained; this media contains proteins that stabilize the virus until the sample can be properly analyzed. VTM includes buffers to control pH as well as antibiotics and antifungals to prevent or eliminate bacteria or fungi from contaminating the clinical sample.

Gathering supplies

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, university employees who receive requests for donations or supplies from UB should contact the emergency management team at [email protected] .

The team is working closely with partners across the region to respond to the crisis. When requests for donations are received, UB’s emergency management team will work with affected departments to assess UB’s inventory and determine what level of support can be provided.

Members of the public who are not UB employees should contact their local or county emergency services offices if they have supplies to donate or receive requests for donations.

Other Jacobs School colleagues were reaching out, too. Jay Bangs, PhD, the chair of microbiology and immunology, sent an email asking if anyone had the chemical reagents needed to make the VTM.

Almost immediately, faculty responded. Elsa Bou Ghanem, PhD, an assistant professor in the department, provided enough Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution and heat-inactivated Fetal Bovine Serum, two major components in VTM, to make approximately 25 liters, enough for 8,000 tubes.

Inquiries about additional reagents resulted in more donations from the Department of Biochemistry Stockroom, thanks to Mark O’Brian, PhD, chair of biochemistry, and staffers Amy Raslawsky and Dawn Rowland, who provided the essential antibiotic.

Campagnari then connected with Nicholas Ingrao at Kaleida labs, who provided the antifungal agent they needed to complete the VTM. Nicole Luke-Marshall, PhD, research assistant professor, and Lisa Hansen, both of Campagnari’s lab group, who have extensive experience in proper sterile technique, also volunteered to help.

“It was truly amazing how quickly everyone came together,” said Campagnari. “Within a few days, we had all the essential reagents, we had assembled a team and we were making VTM.”

A simple ‘recipe’

Campagnari and his team followed what they termed a simple “recipe,” adding each reagent at the proper concentration, filter sterilizing the solution and then portioning 3 milliliters of VTM into 15 milliliters sterile tubes.

It requires working in a biosafety cabinet with an automatic pipettor and disposable pipettes. Again, Campagnari said, they were fortunate because Tom Russo, MD, professor and chief, Division of Infectious Disease in the Department of Medicine, and Chelsie Armbruster, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, let them use their biosafety cabinets. “As we now had three biosafety cabinets we were also able to practice ‘social distancing’ while making the VTM,” he added.

Once the samples are prepared, each tube must be properly labelled. “While it is somewhat tedious and time consuming, it is not difficult,” Campagnari said.

He noted that other regions experiencing VTM shortages should identify research labs in the vicinity that also might be able to help.

Campagnari’s team at the Jacobs School has now committed to provide Kaleida Health with about 1,000 tubes of VTM per week for as long as necessary.

“Many individuals from the Jacobs School rapidly responded to this shortage by dedicating their time, their reagents, and their facilities, which is an excellent example of teamwork involving a combination of both clinical and basic science expertise,” Campagnari said.

This story was originally published by the University at Buffalo