Collaboration in the Face of COVID-19
In 2020, the university faced an unprecedented and complex task—keeping students and staff safe during a global pandemic while continuing to offer in-person instruction. Our community has joined together to meet this overwhelming challenge in a truly remarkable way. The University of Idaho COVID-19 testing lab, led by the IBEST Genomics Resources Core (GRC) and housed inside Gritman Medical Center, adds necessary testing capacity to the community to help prevent the spread of the virus. Related to the testing lab is the SARS-CoV-2 wastewater testing project, headed by Drs. Erik Coats, Eva Top, and Thibault Stalder. Their team identifies trends to help inform clinical testing strategies by measuring the virus concentration in campus wastewater samples.
In addition to testing people with coronavirus symptoms, the clinical lab conducts surveillance testing, which is designed to catch cases in asymptomatic people. In comparison, the wastewater testing focuses on locating undetected hotspots. Once those areas are pinpointed, the clinical lab can then target them for surveillance testing to identify positive cases. The two projects work together to maximize efficiency and capability in detecting COVID-19 cases. Their shared goal is identifying and isolating carriers of the virus as early as possible, thus allowing the U of I campus to remain open.
Both teams’ success can be attributed in part to their readiness before the pandemic began. The GRC is a genomics hub that has clients and connections all across campus. “When the notion of testing came up, people didn’t just answer our questions, they wanted to know how they could help more,” says IBEST Director Dr. Barrie Robison. By the summer of 2020, Coats’ and Top’s labs were pursuing parallel research topics dealing with detecting and processing bacteria in wastewater. So, when ORED connected them to begin testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2, they already had resources and methods in place. Coats says, “I got the call, and we were collecting samples the next day.”
“It wasn’t without bumps, but it has been a largely successful endeavor,” says Robison. “And without the research infrastructure of this university, none of this would have happened.” The combined willingness and effort from individuals across campus has kept the university’s doors open and its community healthy. “I’m proud of what this university has done,” says Coats. “It’s been very rewarding to know that we have made a difference.”