How UW’s Virology Lab Helped Forge the Nation’s Covid-19 Testing

The University of Washington Virology Lab churned out thousands of results that informed public health measures well beyond Washington’s borders.

By Benjamin Cassidy April 10, 2020 Published in the July/August 2020 issue of Seattle Met

Image: David Ryder

After Washington weathered America’s first coronavirus outbreak, the rest of the country began to look longingly at our great state. It wasn’t just because we began to “flatten the curve” of cases before damn near anyone else (even though, you know, we did). No, the nation made eyes at us partly from self-interest. While the federal government squandered precious days trying to rectify a bungled federal testing rollout, the Puget Sound region laid claim to a virus detection juggernaut, one that could not only serve the needs of its immediate surrounds but also, potentially, assess cases from some of those less fortunate states.

Dr. Keith Jerome. 

Image: David Ryder

That scientific star, the UW Medicine Virology Lab, ultimately answered our neighbors’ cries for help. As it processed more than half of Washington’s daily tests, the UW team also chipped away at other states’ sitting samples. On March 18, for instance, the lab conducted 2,857 tests; nationally that number reached just 11,200 between CDC and public sites. “People’s challenges vary in different parts of the country, what instrumentation they have,” Dr. Keith Jerome, the lab’s director, said in early April. “Some areas have plenty of swabs and less capability to actually do the tests, so we’ve been trying to reach out and say, ‘If you’re in that situation, we can help you break down backlogs.’”

Labs in other states would marshal more effective testing apparatuses as the pandemic continued, but most are still playing catch-up to a certain 24,000-square-foot facility in northern Seattle. Jerome and assistant lab director Alex Greninger had been developing a test for a month before the FDA gave private and academic labs the go-ahead to process specimens on February 29. They’d started shortly after Chinese scientists released the virus’s genetic sequence, though, for Jerome, institutional support was the site’s differentiator. “We were told very early on by the leadership of the university to not worry about the money,” he says.

The virology program is a division of the school’s laboratory medicine department, which dates back to the summer of 1969. “The department struggled in its early years,” its website notes. That history feels quite distant now. Between emails with scientists in Uganda and Peru soliciting their advice, virology lab workers offered intel to the White House Coronavirus Task Force during the pandemic’s early weeks. And by mid-April, the lab was among the first in the country to develop a blood test that could detect past infections of the novel coronavirus, providing a valuable tool for the next stage of our regional, and global, recovery. “That’s what’s going to get people back to work and get the economy back,” says Jerome, “and give us all back the lives that we wish to live.” 

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