As the rest of the country looks to us now with a self-interested longing that would make Joe Exotic blush, it's important to remember that the novel coronavirus continues to rage in both Washington state and King County. On Thursday, our local public health authority alone reported 198 new cases and 14 more deaths, and while Washington medical facilities increasingly offer drive-throughs and other testing options, the number of confirmed Covid-19 patients is definitely still an undercount.
“Right now, you have to be pretty sick to get one of these tests,” says Dr. Keith Jerome, the director of the University of Washington Virology Lab.
The UW facility has emerged a beacon amid our tempestuous testing environment. On Thursday, it conducted nearly 2,300 patients’ tests, a fairly typical number for a weekday, according to Jerome. (Numbers tend to dip on the weekend.) Turnaround time is down to about 10 hours for any test and as little as six hours for those sent through the university’s medical system. This efficiency eases more than just patients’ minds; it reduces unnecessary use of personal protective equipment for frontline workers.
But the lab could be doing even more. According to Jerome, it’s capable of processing as many as 5,000 results per day. The problem? It’s not receiving enough tests, still, due to testing sites’ nasal swab shortages and low supplies of “media” to maintain the virus during transport, among other issues. “We would like nothing better than to test more people,” says Jerome, “because we’re big believers that to really get a hold of this, we need to have a better understanding of who has it [and] ideally test people who are minimally symptomatic.”
As our focus eventually shifts from flattening the curve to preventing another outbreak, mass testing will undoubtedly figure prominently, and you can bet UW's virology lab will continue to as well. The department started receiving widespread attention in early March after overcoming the country’s bureaucratic nightmare to help Washington and other states test their populaces for the novel coronavirus. Initially, only the Public Health Laboratory in Shoreline could handle specimens, and its capacity was just 200 samples. UW began testing on March 2 and has since processed an outsized chunk of Washington’s case load. As of April 3, the entire state had completed more than 88,000 tests. As of that same date, the lab had provided results for more than 47,000, though many of those specimens hailed from out-of-state backlogs, a testament to the facility’s national esteem.
UW’s scientists and lab technicians have tried to export some of their pioneering knowledge to other parts of America and countries around the world. On the day before I spoke with Jerome, the lab was represented on a call with the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and it has helped countries from which it cannot feasibly take specimens—Uganda, Peru—ramp up operations on the ground. “The university's always had a tremendous interest in global health,” Jerome says, noting that one of his trainees is now a laboratory director in Uganda.
Yet, few sites, academic or otherwise, can lean on the institutional support that Jerome's lab received from the get-go. "We were told very early on by the leadership of the university to not worry about the money upfront," he says.
That financial backing has allowed the lab to already start researching the next stages of disease mitigation, such as when hydroxychloroquine (the anti-malaria drug that carries both potential healing powers and risks) should be deployed and which vaccine trials might prove effective. Yet, the major project currently underway is the advancement of serological testing—essentially, using patients’ blood to assess their responses to the virus. Examining those antibodies will help determine if somebody who, say, had a mild case might be immune from a second bout. "That’ll be really important for those people to know because they can take some of the frontline jobs in places without necessarily feeling like they're putting their own health at risk,” Jerome says.
It's a daunting undertaking ("the scale of that will be even bigger than what we've done so far”), but recent donations have helped advanced it. The Seattle Times reported a $20 million surge in UW giving, including $10 million from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie, on Tuesday. The stakes couldn't be higher. "Seeing that sort of support come through has really allowed us to, with confidence, move into this next phase where we can start to think about this really, really broad testing, not only for the virus but for the immune response,” Jerome says, “and that's what's going to get people back to work and get the economy back and give us all back the lives that we wish to live."