Illustration: petovarga / Shutterstock.com
When the COVID-19 virus first came to Brazos County, leaders at Texas A&M University searched for ways to quickly and accurately identify “hot spots” on campus for possible quarantine and to track infections among students, faculty, and staff.
The solutions came from an unexpected source: the newly constructed Global Health Research Complex (GHRC), an $86 million state-of-the-art facility devoted to fighting the infectious diseases that pose the gravest threats to Texas public health and to the state’s $100 billion agricultural economy.
“We never thought our very first project would develop surveillance testing for a pandemic threat on a college campus,” GHRC Executive Director Kurt Zuelke said. “But dealing with COVID-19 is a natural fit for our overall mission and capability, so we mobilized to respond accordingly.” In addition to conducting groundbreaking research, GHRC is designed to produce highly advanced countermeasures to slow or stop disease outbreaks. Those products include new vaccines, diagnostic assays, and rapid-detection tools. So how did this leading-edge research facility become involved with surveillance testing, which depends largely on a common lab technique known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR)? The story began in mid-2020 when top-level A&M administrators put out a general call for assistance with tracking the COVID-19 virus.
“Our leaders were asking a lot of questions about testing for the coronavirus and, as far as we could tell, they weren’t getting many answers,” said Senior Associate Vice President for Research Allison R. Ficht, who also co-chairs the Texas A&M Emergency Management Advisory Group (TEMAG).
TEMAG enhances the state’s response to the COVID-19 virus by pooling the knowledge and experience of more than 120 A&M scientists, engineers, and other experts, including Zuelke and his team at GHRC. “We suggested the university ask GHRC to solve the problem,” Ficht said.
In response, GHRC began to develop a PCR test to identify the coronavirus in wastewater, using published research as a guide. Developed in the 1980s, the PCR process takes a small sample of genetic material (such as DNA or RNA) and quickly generates millions of copies. This technique of “molecular photocopying” is a mainstay for many disciplines, including biomedical sciences, criminal forensics, and medical diagnostics. “We wanted a process that could test wastewater without having to concentrate or treat the samples,” Zuelke said. “We needed to minimize the steps for testing a sample, plus we wanted to make sure the test could consistently handle the range of samples we expected to run locally. Also, we wanted a test we could turn around quickly.” In developing its test, GHRC significantly reduced the sample size to forty milliliters, less than three tablespoons. The team also found a way to isolate the coronavirus’s RNA in each sample. “This makes the test less sensitive to other components of the wastewater that could affect our analysis,” Zuelke said. “It also allows us to normalize the data from location to location so the data we received in September remains comparable to the data we receive today.” Texas A&M rolled out the GHRC’s wastewater test in September 2020. Since then, on Mondays and Thursdays, a third-party company has collected wastewater samples from the same sixteen campus locations at specific times. These include the Memorial Student Center; Rudder Tower; the Corps Quadrangle; the Gardens Apartments; Evans Library; and housing at Park West, White Creek, and around the Southside Commons. “This gives us a snapshot of what’s happening at each site at the time of collection,” Ficht said. The collection company delivers the samples to GHRC by noon. The lab then runs the PCR tests, generating reports before 4:30 p.m., for university leadership and for epidemiologists at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.
“We’re providing data in something close to real time,” Zuelke said. “This allows the university to make informed decisions with a real impact on public health.”
GHRC also is working with the School of Public Health to link the results of its wastewater testing with the school’s epidemiological data. The goal is to create a picture of how the coronavirus has behaved on campus during the pandemic. Dean Shawn G. Gibbs of the School of Public Health praised GHRC’s role in supporting the university’s on-campus response to the pandemic. “The GHRC team has been a wonderful partner to the School of Public Health and all members of the Texas A&M COVID-19 response,” Gibbs said. “A true innovator throughout the Texas A&M COVID-19 response, GHRC has developed methodologies for analyses for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater and in the human salvia samples, and then their team analyzed tens of thousands of those samples. They have brought forward many capabilities and novel solutions that have allowed Texas A&M to get a much more complete picture of the status of the virus on our campus. They have worked tirelessly to help us keep the campus as safe as possible during the pandemic.”
WASTEWATER TESTING PROCESS
A team at Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex developed a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus in samples of wastewater. These samples come to GHRC twice weekly from sixteen locations on the College Station campus, including dorms, apartments, the Evans Library, the Memorial Student Center, and Rudder Tower. In this video, lab personnel demonstrate the test from start to finish.
Photo: Sam Craft/Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications
Since January 4, 2021, GHRC has tested more than
SCALING UP TESTING OF STUDENTS, FACULTY, AND STAFF
A&M officials also needed a way to track COVID infections on a large scale among students, faculty, and staff—especially among those who had no symptoms. Once again, the GHRC team combed through available research and decided to develop a PCR test for human saliva on the basis of a federally approved method for detecting the coronavirus. “The publications describing this saliva test were very detailed, right down to which test tubes and reagents to order,” Zuelke said. “We found we could get reliable results with one less processing step and one less reagent. We developed and validated a test we could scale up to process larger numbers of samples.” Choosing a saliva test also made the supplies to collect and analyze samples easier to maintain. “With a saliva test, you don’t need swabs or a transporting medium,” Ficht said. “There are fewer parts and reagents to order. That really helps with supply chain issues.” Once the test was ready to deploy, A&M set up drive-through collection stations as well as walk-up stations at residence halls, the student recreation center, and other high-traffic areas. GHRC reports the overall numbers of positive and negative tests to Texas A&M’s COVID 19 dashboard and to the School of Public Health. The complex also forwards all samples that test positive for COVID-19 to CHI St. Joseph Health in Bryan–College Station for diagnostic testing. Since January 4, 2021, GHRC has tested more than 30,000 saliva samples. “We can handle upwards of 10,000 samples a week,” Zuelke said. “We are able to isolate viral RNA from positive samples and are now also using whole-genome sequencing to identify the emergence of any mutational variants of the coronavirus almost as they occur in the local area.” In early March 2021, the lab detected the arrival on campus of the United Kingdom variant. As the spring semester progressed, the average amount of COVID-19 virus found in individual saliva samples increased steadily.
"Viruses are nature’s little evolution engines—viruses don’t mutate because they can, they mutate because they have to change in order to survive."
BENJAMIN NEUMAN Professor of Biology and GHRC Chief Virologist Texas A&M University
Meanwhile, GHRC is preparing to support A&M researchers who have secured funding for projects related to COVID-19 from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institutes of Health as well as several commercial sources. Participating colleges and schools include agriculture and life sciences, medicine, science, veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences, and public health. “We have a half-dozen funded projects waiting at the door,” Zuelke said. “Once we have the approvals in place for us to handle and grow live viruses, we’ll be supporting a whole range of faculty-led projects in COVID-19 research, whether it’s developing therapeutics or seeking a deeper understanding of the coronavirus.” Nationally, GHRC serves as the secretariat for a new network of university and federal biocontainment facilities. Invited participating institutions in the network include the USDA National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) in Manhattan, Kansas, as well as Kansas State University, Colorado State University, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, and the USDA National Centers for Animal Health in Iowa. Through the network, GHRC will support the transition from Plum Island to NBAF as the nation’s primary research facility for the study of emerging and transboundary infectious diseases in livestock. Since the pandemic began, GHRC has added a chief virologist, coronavirus expert Benjamin Neuman, a professor in the College of Science, who will work with Zuelke to create in vitro tests—tests that study a microorganism such as the COVID-19 virus by using test tubes and petri dishes. “These in vitro studies will use cells infected with the coronavirus to test potential therapeutics for COVID-19,” Ficht said. Both Zuelke and Ficht say the experience with COVID-19 is significantly influencing GHRC’s approach to its mission and operations.