Building a Shield Against COVID in 5 Months
Editor’s Note: Dr. Robin Holland, who graduated in May 2020 with her veterinary degree and had previously completed a PhD degree as part of the Veterinary Medical Scholars Program, had a very important role in fighting COVID-19 at the University of Illinois. This is her 2020 story.
In April, when I was supposed to be finishing up my final weeks at the CDC for professional development (which was cancelled due to COVID), I was invited to join a team with two postdoctoral researchers and a technician to address a single challenge: to create a COVID-19 diagnostic test that is rapid, uses saliva, and avoids major supply chain bottlenecks.
Starting from Nothing
At that point, the literature into the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) was more sparse, and we had no lab, and no equipment. We didn’t even have a name. What later turned into Shield, started as a Test Everyone Initiative.
We started on the north end of campus in the Micro and Nano Technology Lab, and then moved to Burrill Hall. From there, we had many long days, testing every combination of additives, buffers, and conditions that we could find. We were placing rush orders left and right to buy everything we needed.
We met every morning to plan experiments for the day that filled an entire whiteboard. In the afternoon we had Zoom sessions with various professors. And at the end of the day, we analyzed data, reviewed our findings, and brainstormed ideas for the next day.
On the day I was supposed to be celebrating graduation, I was in the lab. By the end of May, we did it! We had our diagnostic test.
From 0 to 10,000 Tests/Day in ~3 Months
Then came the next challenge: to build a lab that could process 10,000 tests in a single day. I was specifically hired to lead this effort. We moved again, this time from Burrill Hall to the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) in the veterinary college’s Basic Sciences Building.
After carefully buckling up expensive PCR equipment into the backseat of my car, we were off. We had a few empty rooms at the end of a hall in the VDL, and we soon filled them with boxes upon boxes of supplies.
Among the items we bought were multiple 89-liter hot-water baths to be kept a 95’C (203’F), thousands of pipette tips, dozens of pipettes, multiple liquid handler robotic systems, and multiple real-time PCR machines. We tested every step of the diagnostic workflow, from how much saliva a person should provide and how long people should refrain from eating before giving a sample, to how well the labels on the sample tubes withstood the hot water bath, to how long samples can sit before being tested.
No detail was missed, and yes, we tested a lot of our saliva.
Soon after setting up the VDL COVID Lab, we started receiving samples from campus and across the state, to collect critical confirmatory information that our test was just as good as the standard nasal swab test for COVID.
We expanded our team rapidly, hiring more technicians and assistants than I could keep track of. Then, the “real” samples started coming in. I remember the team being absolutely overwhelmed with only a few hundred samples in one day.
Nearly every day we identified how to improve the workflow. We performed more experiments to test those ideas, then started implementing them. We went from barely being able to test 500 samples in one day, to 10,000+ samples with relative ease.
And in the midst of expanding our testing platform, I was interviewing for jobs that I had applied for before I was first invited to join the COVID team.
Then, in mid July, I was offered what I would truly consider to be my dream job: to lead a federal infectious disease diagnostic laboratory in a high biocontainment facility, where both my DVM and PhD training were not only required for the position but valued.
Although it was hard to leave the COVID lab that I had helped build from the very beginning and to move halfway across the country in the middle of a pandemic to start a new job, I would not have traded any of those opportunities and experiences for anything.
My heart will always belong to Illinois, and to the truly remarkable people who helped me attain my dream!
Dr. Holland shared many of her experiences as a veterinary and PhD student via blog posts for the college. Here are ones from her experiences in Brazil, Germany, Poland, and Japan as well as other accomplishments.