Laboratory Testing Key in Coronavirus Battle, UTHSC Webinar Stresses

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A webinar Wednesday hosted by the UTHSC College of Health Professions spotlighted the importance of laboratory professionals in the fight against COVID-19.

More than 300 people joined a free webinar hosted by the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Department of Diagnostic and Health Sciences in the College of Health Professions Wednesday on “The Role of Laboratory Testing in the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The webinar for health care professionals and the community featured a panel of experts in laboratory sciences, who spoke on the heightened importance of laboratory testing in this pandemic.

Hassan Aziz, PhD, FACSs, MLS(ASCP)cm, associate dean for Academic, Faculty and Student Affairs in the College of Health Professions and interim chair of the Department of Diagnostic and Health Sciences, pointed out that the event was scheduled during National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week.

“This week we salute the heroes in lab coats, whose dedication and strength is more important than ever,” he said opening the session. “Truly, this is not just a week of recognition. This is the year of laboratory testing, the year we recognize that medical decisions depend on quality laboratory test results.”

Dr. Aziz said, an average of 146,000 people per day have been tested this month for the coronavirus nationally, for a total of 3.6 million tests across the country. To reopen the economy by mid-May, the number of daily tests performed between now and then should be 500,000 to 700,000, according to estimates, he said.

“Yesterday, the president and the United States Senate agreed to historic legislation that will implement a National Testing Diagnostic Strategy,” he said. “The United States Senate reached a deal on a $484 billion coronavirus relief package that has $25 billion set aside for coronavirus testing.”

Dr. Aziz said this public health crisis raises many questions about laboratory capacity locally, nationally, and globally. “We need to start planning now for a massive expansion of laboratory capacity,” he said.

Linda Williford Pifer, PhD, SM (ASCP), GS (ABB), professor of Medical Laboratory Sciences at UTHSC, gave an overview of the history of coronaviruses including SARS-1 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in China in 2003, MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Virus) in 2012, and SARS-2, the novel coronavirus known as (COVID-19). Earlier strains of the virus may have had higher mortality, but the transmission rate of the current virus is high. “If there is a second wave, we had better be ready,” Dr. Pifer said.

Jacen Moore, PhD, MA, MT (ASCP), UTHSC assistant professor of Medical Laboratory Sciences, discussed specimen collection and antigen versus antibody testing for COVID-19. While antigen testing is determining who has the active virus, antibody testing to show who was infected or exposed and recovered will become important as the pandemic continues, he said.

“It is important to look not just at antigen tests, but also antibody tests give a view of herd immunity and an idea of those who might have been exposed, as we are starting on the path back to our new normal,” he said.

Anami Patel, PhD, vice president of Genomics Operations and Development for Poplar Healthcare, discussed the current status of diagnostic and screening tests for COVID-19 and how his company has responded to the pandemic.

Mahul B. Amin, MD, professor and chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Gerwin Endowed chair for Cancer Research, and director of Translational Research for the UTHSC Cancer Research Center, offered an overview of how the UTHSC Pathology Department has responded to the coronavirus crisis by establishing a COVID-19 analysis lab on campus in the first 45 days of the outbreak, and is developing diagnostic and screening tests for COVID-19.

The COVID-19 lab is the result of repurposing existing cancer and histology labs, he said. “We said, why not meet the need of the community in a deadly pandemic,” Dr. Amin explained. “We said, we’d love to rise to this challenge.”

Inquiries about the webinar or laboratory testing can be emailed to cls@uthsc.edu. To listen to the webinar in full, please go to:

https://mediaserver.uthsc.edu/uthscms/Play/b53656a0c3b54c5281ccfda4f68315d91d