EDINBURG — If you’re tested for the coronavirus in the Rio Grande Valley in the foreseeable future, there’s a very strong chance your sample will make its way to a lab at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Edinburg campus, where 18-odd students and virologist Dr. John Thomas have processed hundreds of samples in the past week and plan to process thousands more very soon.
Thomas is a veteran virologist who’s studied everything from dengue and Zika to weaponized bacteria and anthrax. He’s an affable man, who circles the lab making jokes and lightly ribbing the technicians while they process samples and sterilize equipment. Although fighting the coronavirus is his job and he’s intensely dedicated to it, he’s also got a personal vendetta against it: he’d really like his gym to open back up.
Thomas has a comfortable, easy-going way of talking about the virus he’s helping wage a war against. That casual attitude belies a determination that keeps his lab going from dawn to dusk and inspires him to literally shed blood for the cause: a CDC requirement for the testing being conducted is a human extraction control and the easiest place to find that is Thomas’ arm.
“Unfortunately, we need to have a control sample to test from, so I come in once a week and complete a couple of mils of blood in a tube. The students will spin the blood down: at the bottom we’ll have red blood cells and at the top we’ll have sera. We suck out the sera and we have to use a couple hundred microlitres every day, as a control,” he said. “Normally we would use human cells, cell lines that are growing in incubator. We’ve taken all those things down because two weeks ago we stopped doing research completely. If we start growing human cells again, it takes about two weeks to grow them again.
“Easiest thing to do is just to bleed myself.”
The technicians in Thomas’ lab are paid graduate students and are equally determined, working rotations of four-person, six-hour shifts.
Mostly students with the Center for Vector-Borne Disease, the majority of them are in their early to mid-20s and they look young, even under their facemasks and plastic aprons. Despite their age and the fact that they’re still students, the key to understanding and fighting the coronavirus in the Valley is likely in their meticulously sanitized and gloved hands. Fortunately, Thomas says, the Valley’s in some fairly competent hands.
“These are students that have been in my lab for one to two years, that have been training on how to work with different viruses, how to characterize and examine infected tissue from animals that have been infected with viruses, so they have a high degree of skill,” he said. “My lab manager is fantastic, he’s an undergraduate student that I picked up with when I got to UTRGV and he’s been with me ever since. He’s really the power behind the throne.”
Although Thomas expected to study COVID-19 in his lab before the coronavirus reached pandemic proportions, he didn’t think he’d wind up being the one.
“Two or three weeks ago I did not expect to be doing all the coronavirus testing in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “My plan was to sit home and enjoy the work-from-home atmosphere everyone else is. Instead it looks like I’ll be testing coronavirus samples for the next two months.”
Thomas was conscripted to fight the pandemic because of his lab and his team of students, which are uniquely geared to test for COVID-19. Because of the lab’s specialized equipment, it can conduct direct genetic testing, processing samples with a high degree of accuracy.
“I have the only machine south of San Antonio that can do this kind of coronavirus test. It’s a very expensive machine, it’s very hard to get, it’s technically very complex,” Thomas said. “It’s a very robust, stringent test. The failure rate on this test is very, very low. There’s multiple layers of controls built into the tests that we run, so if we get a positive sample, we know it’s positive. There’s no question about it.”
The equipment in the lab also means that Thomas and his team don’t have to rely on other people’s test kits, and that they can process tests relatively rapidly.
“Right now the nationwide turnaround for coronavirus testing is 14 to 18 days, and we can turn out a result in about 10 to 12 hours in my lab, but a lot of that’s because we didn’t get 50,000 samples in one day, which is probably what happened with these major labs,” Thomas said.
Last week, the lab began testing in earnest, processing 400 samples collected through the university’s drive-thru testing clinics in Edinburg and Brownsville. This week Thomas expects the lab to be put to the test.
“According to them, they took it easy on me … this coming week they’re going to ramp up the volume facility,” he said. “I think there’s an avalanche headed our way. They tried to keep it off of me last week, but this week I don’t think they’re going to be able to.”
Samples submitted to the lab won’t just be coming from the drive-thrus, Thomas said. The team is beginning to accept samples from other institutions, like a major hospital system in the Lower Rio Grande Valley whose representatives toured the facility last week.
“They expressed a strong desire to immediately move all of their testing for coronavirus into my lab, because they’ve got thousands of samples from patients all over the Rio Grande Valley that are trying to get tested and they can’t because there’s a three-week backlog now,” he said.
The lab has also been contacted by government entities who still have personnel in the field.
“We’ve got anywhere from 50 to 500 samples that are going to come in from that endeavor so we can help Customs and Border Patrol agents get tested,” he said. “I suspect that we’ll have other agencies that will contact us as the word gets out to request for testing as well.”
To keep up with that demand for testing in the long run, the university spent about $300,000 over the weekend to increase the lab’s testing capacity. Improvements like that should allow the lab to triple its testing capacity in the next three weeks, Thomas said.
“That equipments’ not going to be here for two weeks, but as a long term solution, that will be something that will address the overflow,” he said. “Right now, because we’re doing everything manual, it’s like cutting 10 lawns with a push mower versus cutting 10 lawns with a John Deere riding lawn mower. Both are going to get the job done, but one is going to be a lot easier and a better long-term solution.”
For now, however, most people who suspect they have COVID-19 in the Valley will be relying on Thomas and his band of grad students, yanked from Netflix and video games and peaceful isolation at the beginning of the crisis.
“The students are loving it. They may not be loving it a week from now, but they’re getting a chance to participate in something that’s historic, and when we get through this we can start to publish the data that we’ve generated from this and what we’ve learned,” he said. “This week it looks like we’re going to double the number of samples we process, and at sometime the pitchforks may come out for me, but right now they’re all happy.”
Oscar Quintanilla, 24, is one of those students. A biology grad student, Quintanilla has studied vector-borne diseases under Thomas before but was still wary of working with COVID-19.
“I was a little bit nervous, especially at first. It is a virus that’s not very well understood, so we don’t know a lot about it, but we follow the CDC guidelines and recommendations and are using all the precautions we can,” he said. “We’re on our second week of doing this, so we’ve had some time to adjust.”
Despite that, Quintanilla said it was easy to realize the importance of the testing being conducted in the lab.
“A lot of people are waiting on these results, and they need to know,” he said. “The sooner people know, the faster we can get care to people that definitely are infected.”