But within weeks, the Oklahoma State University lab — which typically tests for diseases such as rabies in dogs and respiratory ailments in Oklahoma’s large cattle industry — was running more human coronavirus tests than any other lab in the state. It had recruited a raft of volunteers and hired additional staff to work until 3 a.m. processing thousands of tests a week — nearly a quarter of the state total, and four times more than the decaying state public health lab. Lab personnel, all animal specialists, speak of their new task as a public service mission.
“Being the lab that is doing the most testing has made the responsibility so much higher on our shoulders,” said Ramachandran, a veterinarian who said his biggest concern is that one of his staff members will fall ill with the virus, perhaps forcing the lab to shutter. “That could be a severe impact on the state.”
The Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory’s scrappy, collaborative effort to shift gears amid a crisis was aided by basic biological similarities between humans and other species: Animals’ nasal passages are routinely swabbed for viruses, and nucleic acid is extracted from samples and amplified on state-of-the-art machines identical to those used in human testing for the novel coronavirus. But it also highlights the preparedness of many animal health labs, which — unlike public health labs — have been buttressed by federal grants to be bulwarks against outbreaks that could cripple livestock and poultry industries.
A handful of other veterinary labs across the country are running human tests, adding diagnostic capacity to a patchwork national testing effort beset by several woes. Although several others want to help, regulations have stood in the way, said David Zeman, executive director of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, which accredits animal health labs.
Labs running human coronavirus tests must be certified by a group that accredits human labs and have FDA-approved equipment. Some animal labs have come up with workarounds, such as the one at Oregon State University, which partnered with a human lab to share resources. The massive animal health lab at Texas A&M University, on the other hand, complains that its efforts to be accredited for human testing have been stymied by the federal government.
“This authorization business is the biggest obstacle,” said Zeman, whose group represents 64 animal health labs, many of which, he said, could run far more tests than Oklahoma State’s. “The machinery is the same, the science is the same, the diagnostic test is the same. The only difference is the specimen.”
Although a small number of U.S. cats, dogs and other animals have tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19, animal health labs are running few such tests, in part because the chemicals used are needed for human testing and are in short supply.
Even with the technical know-how, the coronavirus operation was a big undertaking for Oklahoma State, a 25,000-student campus in Stillwater that is running tests under a contract with the state.
After Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) amended an emergency order to allow academic labs to conduct testing in late March, university officials asked the veterinary lab’s leaders how they might help.
“They said, ‘Well, we have the capabilities, because we do test for coronaviruses, and we can do volumes,’ ” said Carlos Risco, dean of the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.
Ed Kirtley, an engineering dean and former firefighter with emergency management experience, was deployed to handle logistics. Knowing the lab would need more people, a task force he formed emailed faculty and staff in search of volunteers with laboratory experience. After identifying people who might be vulnerable to the novel coronavirus — and deciding they weren’t right for work involving it — the committee had 58 volunteers.
A few were put up in dorms to lessen the chance they might take the virus home to their families. A physician from the university’s medical school, 70 miles away in Tulsa, signed on to provide oversight, which helped the lab quickly secure the crucial accreditation.
Within nine days, the volunteers and staff had taken steps required of people who work in human labs — they were tested for hepatitis B, trained on handling blood-borne pathogens and schooled on the federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA.
Campus bus drivers were hired to drive vehicles from the university motor pool to pick up patient samples, mostly from public health departments and hospitals in rural counties across the state.
“Higher education tends to be really siloed,” Kirtley said. “But the whole campus came together for this.”
Inside the brick lab, Jerry Ritchey, a veterinary pathologist who was interim director at the time, was thinking about numbers. The tests would be run in the molecular diagnostics section headed by Ramachandran, which already had FDA-approved machines capable of running up to 2,000 coronavirus tests a day.
“Previously it was used for animals, and now it’s being used for a different kind of animal,” Ritchey said. “A coronavirus at the end of a nasal swab, it doesn’t really matter if it came from a cow, a pig or a person — it’s going to be tested the exact same way.”
The molecular diagnostics section had five employees normally, and the lab was determined to keep up with its regular job of running about 100,000 tests annually for animal diseases. To cope, a night shift was added, staffed by graduate students in sciences and led by a faculty member whose family was stranded in India by travel shutdowns. He figured he might as well work when he would be “sleeping at home anyway,” Ramachandran said.
Unlike other labs, Oklahoma State’s has not had trouble procuring test processing kits. Other supplies have been harder to come by, such as the protective sleeves scientists wear over their arms when handling samples. A solution was apparent to a lab full of veterinarians familiar with the long obstetrics gloves that “you wear when you dig your hand into the back end of a cow,” Ramachandran said. “You can buy hundreds of those at a time. We just cut off the palm portion of it.”
Another hurdle is sorting and labeling patient samples. Unlike specimens from animals, which are often submitted and approached as herds, each human specimen is handled as an individual. So for several hours each night, a dozen volunteers unpack the day’s deliveries, matching vials to documents, bar coding and delivering them to the lab.
“I felt like this was an opportunity for me to contribute to the mission of the university and to the state of Oklahoma, but also I was just feeling helpless” about the pandemic, said Darren Hagen, an assistant professor of animal genomics. Four nights a week, Hagen rushes home from his day job to briefly see his three children, then heads to the animal health lab to help out.
Now though, Hagen says his volunteering is driven by a desire to ease the burden on Ritchey, Ramachandran and other lab staff, who he worries will burn out.
“They’re trying to do their jobs and this,” Hagen said. “The best way forward, short of a vaccine, is to test — that’s the consensus. It’s just the way we’re doing it today isn’t sustainable. That crew over there can’t work until 2 or 3 in the morning every night.”
As of Friday, the lab had tested more than 21,600 samples, about 4 percent of which were positive; the state’s positive rate was just above 5 percent. It will continue covid-19 testing as long as it’s needed, university officials said.
So far the lab has run up to 1,300 tests in one day. It could do 700 more, but that would require a third shift, and Ramachandran says he isn’t eager to do that. As a veterinarian in the unlikely position of managing covid-19 testing in what has become the most important diagnostic lab in Oklahoma, he’s already working 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. each day.
Ramachandran’s wife works in the university veterinary hospital’s emergency department, which means she also pulls long hours. They see little of their 16-year-old son, who mostly has been handling his own home schooling.
The last several weeks have “felt like a year,” Ramachandran said. But he said he’s focused on the big picture — stopping the novel coronavirus.
“We just have to consider the future generation. We have to try to make it a much safer place for them,” he said. “Even though my son is at home alone, in a way, I’m doing this for him.”