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Molecular/COVID Lab Closes After Four Years of Service in the Face of Unprecedented Pandemic

After more than four years and 200,000 COVID-19 tests analyzed, the Molecular/COVID Lab at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center closed Friday May 3. Angelica Fullwiley and Kesia Chism were both long-term employees in the lab from mid-2020 until it closed.

The world shut down in response to COVID-19 in early March 2020. By late March, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center announced it was partnering with University Clinical Health (UCH) to open a lab on the Memphis campus to analyze the deluge of COVID-19 tests being done around town.

By May 4, the Molecular/COVID Lab in the 930 Madison Building at UT Health Science Center had done both the regulatory and scientific technical work to become one of only a dozen academic medical centers in the country to receive an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA to produce its own assay for the virus to determine who was infected and who was not.

This was done in record time and in collaboration with partners inside and outside the university, all to help the community battle a pandemic that was still mainly a mystery.

After four years and more than 200,000 diagnostic tests analyzed since the beginning of the pandemic, the Molecular/COVID Lab closed Friday, May 3. The closing is the result of the decreasing volume of COVID-19 testing, changing requirements for asymptomatic screening, the ability of hospital labs to do their own testing and analysis, and the end of the public health emergency.

“So, it’s a good thing that numbers went down. It’s a good thing that we have this pandemic under control. But it’s bittersweet, because it also meant the need for this rapidly established, exemplary laboratory went away as well,” said Vickie Baselski, PhD, a tenured professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, who was a clinical, technical, and regulatory consultant for the lab since it opened.

“This is a story about how a group of people came together to meet an urgent need of the community during a never before experienced pandemic,” Dr. Baselski said. “Previous pandemics have not carried the mortality, have not carried the fear factor. It hit hard and it hit fast and there was not laboratory support to meet the demands or the needs of the challenge of this pandemic.”

The lab was an example of the best of what UT Health Science Center can offer the community,” said Vickie Baselski, PhD, left, shown with fellow veterans of the COVID-19 battle.

UCH Pathology and UT Health Science Center Pathology and Laboratory Medicine came together very quickly to meet this unmet need for analyzing testing, she said. Neil Hayes, MD, professor in the Division of Hematology and Oncology and director of the Center for Cancer Research, had access to equipment that could be rapidly configured to meet high volume needs for testing, as well as expertise on technical aspects of assay design. Colleen Jonsson, PhD, professor and Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology provided proficiency in the biological aspects of the virus. “If you look at the current UT Health Science Center vision statement, ‘transforming lives through collaborative and inclusive education, research, scholarship, clinical care, and public service,’ that is what we did.”

Dr. Hayes recalled having the realization in mid-March 2020 that Memphis had almost no capacity for rapid development of the molecular testing that would be required for the diagnosis and accurate treatment of COVID patients. This meant the entire region would need to wait while tests were sent off as far as away as North Carolina or California, delaying by days, weeks, or even longer the time it took for accurate results. Dr. Hayes knew the Center for Cancer Research’s Molecular Cancer Lab had the capacity to use its 20 years of cancer diagnostic testing in the battle against COVID-19. In less than 30 days and with nearly $500,000 of Cancer Center funding, the COVID-19 lab was established.

Neil Hayes, PhD, was among those initiating the the lab after realizing in mid-March 2020 the city did not have capacity to analyze the huge numbers of COVID tests being done. He is show above in the lab early in the pandemic.

“The value of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center to the public, including the Center for Cancer Research and our partners in the Department of Pathology, is that we bring incredible capacities to the city and the region,” Dr. Hayes said. “In this case, it was rapid adoption of a critical medical test for COVID. In some other cases, it might be improvements in the quality of clinical care. UT Health Science Center represents an unparalleled resource to unite the public need for health and the best the science and technology has to offer.”

The lab was among many efforts by the university to combat the coronavirus on the local, state, and national level.

With the Shelby County Health Department, UCH, and the City of Memphis, UT Health Science Center opened a drive-thru testing site at the Fairgrounds in mid-March, one of the first and largest public testing sites in the city. It was initially staffed primarily by medical students and College of Medicine faculty. Later, students, faculty, and alumni from other colleges joined the effort at the Fairgrounds and other testing sites sponsored by the university around the city.

UT Health Science Center and UCH later turned some testing sites into vaccination sites. However, through it all, the Molecular/COVID Lab has operated, returning results within four hours from the time of specimen receipt and negotiating a $3 million COVID-19 sequencing contract with the Tennessee Department of Health and a $750,000 contract with the Shelby County Health Department. The lab provided sequence data on almost 30,000 positive samples from the state and from the local community to assist with following the viral variability that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that caused the pandemic, is well known for.

“University Clinical Health is proud of our collaboration with UT Health Science Center in delivering crucial COVID testing and molecular lab services to our community for the past four years,” said Shannon Tacker, chief executive officer for UCH. “Over the last two years, our commitment to serving the public health and research community efforts persisted as we sequenced thousands of positive COVID samples from across Tennessee. It has been a privilege to serve our community throughout the pandemic. As a health care organization, this is our calling.”  

Tejesh Patel, MD, Ammonette-Rosenberg Chair of the Department of Dermatology, and interim chair of the Department of Pathology, had a message for all those who set up and staffed the lab. “Your hard work, sacrifices, and selflessness during this unprecedented time is nothing more than remarkable,” he said. “Our patients, health care workers, city, and community were lucky to have you all step in when we needed you most.”

Dr. Baselski, who has been on the faculty at UT Health Science Center for 44 years, said the lab provides an additional message for the community.

“The message that I want to send loud and clear is that the laboratory pathology and laboratory medicine community is vital to meeting patient care needs with any infectious disease, but particularly during pandemics,” she said. “Without us, you’re only guessing, or in other words, laboratory folks get results. The value that the laboratory community brings to meeting any infectious disease challenge is absolutely critical.”