The race to understand epidemics can be won with modern-day herculean efforts, and partnering

As a scientist, the job to educate oneself and the world is crucial. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also important for us to keep our personal and world situations in perspective.

My local community and all the surrounding counties near Philadelphia, are in lockdown mode—no school, no church, no unnecessary travel, for at least a month. Even the state parks and my walking club have closed down. One has to wonder the economic affects, but clearly people and health are the top priority.

As a PhD scientist, I was listening intently last week during our monthly Safety Committee meeting (which was scheduled pre-pandemic). We all have levels of concern – ourselves, our families, our clients, our communities – and for ensuring safety all around. I am NOT a healthcare professional or epidemiologist, but I can Google with the best of them to educate myself, and I care enough to learn to help quiet the scare, to look for the facts in the freak-out, to find real data above the hype, and most importantly, to help others think and make game plans.

These days all businesses are looking at their options for business continuity, stepped-up measures to prevent the spread of disease, and how to navigate these new unchartered waters.

Demanding more lab tests

You can imagine how crucial it is to have laboratory tests for the county and state authorities monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak, to help reduce the anxiety and make game plans specific region by region. In the meeting, I was thinking of the hard-hit epicenters of outbreaks in nursing homes in Washington State here they are trying to segregate the ill from the not-yet-exposed. Reliable testing is needed. Immediately, I thought of a recent news conference given by NY Governor Andrew Cuomo detailing how the state of NY is contracting out work to about 30 private clinical laboratories to increase the COVID-19 testing. I don’t work at a clinical laboratory for human health testing, but I know the basic science of how they do these tests and the urgency in making COVID19-specific protocols available. The test to target the nucleic acids of the virus use standard PCR-based tests with unique reagents, called primers and probes, specific to COVID19. And any laboratory must be vetted through scientific rigor to perform these tests, and must show government agencies a validated method which ensures consistency in testing and confidence in the results. Fortunately many clinical laboratories in NY already used by the state for health testing, were able to meet the challenges and recently the Food and Drug Administration granted approval to start testing. Good news in that there are now drive-thru mobile COVID19 clinics in New Rochelle, the epicenter of person to person contact in that state.

Historic science and sequencing efforts

Putting aside the interesting conversations of states’ rights vs. federal rights and utilizing public vs. private testing labs, the science is the same. And the scientists obtained and shared this information FAST. The Chinese government posted a full genome sequence of 2019-nCoV (also known as COVID19 or now SARS-CoV-2) in January in the public database “Genbank” (curated by the US National Institute of Health “NIH”). This allowed the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the ability to establish a compliant 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. Another important notion is nomenclature and Coronavirus 2019 or COVID19 is now called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus.

Obtaining the whole genome sequences of any organism (and so quickly) was unheard of until 25 years ago with a then-laborious process for the first full genome sequenced organism, bacteria Haemophilus Influenzae Rd. Sequencing changes history. Subsequence technological advances in “Next Generation” or “Deep Sequencing” now means that past requirements for enormous super-computing level efforts have come down to “simply” using small benchtop machines. All these science advances have been realized only a short time after the 1950’s understanding of DNA structure itself by Watson and Crick, and Rosalind Franklin.

Regulations and reliability.

Tests for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus are now amazingly in use to support a drive-thru format, supporting capacity for thousands of tests. This is in less than 2 months after the novel sequence was first published. International collaboration of cutting-edge science and cutting through the red tape, allows vetted and approved procedures to be utilized for reliable results. And it is with good reason that clinical and pharmaceutical testing is required for medications and materials, for efficacy and safety. One only has to look at the “USP” notation on everyday over-the-counter medications to know the manufacturer adheres to the United States Pharmacopeia regulations to keep medicines safe. “GMP” and “GLP” acronyms in testing labs stand for Good Manufacturing and Laboratory Processes, and ensure production and testing is done to the highest standards. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) regulate lab testing for humans. Likewise, the food industry holds certain standards for restaurants and grocery stores, and OSHA, the Occupational, Safety and Health Administration teaches and requires strict safety standards for workers.

The race to understand epidemics is being staged with modern-day herculean efforts. Large scale cooperation—internationally achieved and implemented—will be the fuel for not just winning this war but learning how to nip future pandemics in the bud.