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The Value of Partnerships

Friday, December 18, 2020

Stepping up to the Challenge

Oklahoma State University stepped up to the challenge of helping combat the spread of COVID-19 by establishing a human diagnostic lab on the Stillwater campus in March. It remains the most productive COVID-19 testing lab in the state.

While the effects of the virus have been devastating, COVID-19 provided a clarifying lens for what is possible when partnerships are formed and academic, political and personal aspirations are set aside in the pursuit of a common goal.

“We are extremely proud of the innovative and collaborative work of our large and diverse team of experts and volunteers,” said Oklahoma State President Burns Hargis.

“Our COVID- 19 testing response is a shining example of Oklahoma State’s foundational landgrant mission to educate, conduct cutting-edge research, and share both with the world.”

The State of a 'Wicked Problem'

There’s a scientific term that sounds like slang: a “wicked problem.”

It’s a problem that’s out of the ordinary in its size, scope and complexity, burdened with incomplete or contradictory knowledge, and with tentacles, many unforeseen, that weave the issue at hand into other complicated concepts like economies. In all the “wicked problems” the world has faced in this century and the last, COVID-19 can be counted as one of the most pervasive.

Dr. Kayse Shrum, president of the OSU Center for Health Sciences and the dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, was serving as Gov. Kevin Stitt’s secretary for science and innovation as the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Oklahoma on March 7. She was the only physician in his cabinet. On March 13, Shrum became part of the state’s COVID-19 Solution Task Force.

Adequate testing was a primary problem in the fight against COVID-19.

Without it, decision makers were flying blind, using incomplete information and historical knowledge of other disease processes to determine next steps. Shrum knew much more testing was needed and wondered if OSU might be able to help.

Little did she know that Dr. Kenneth Sewell, OSU’s vice president for research, was already taking inventory of testing equipment and expertise across the Stillwater campus that might help, and he had discovered most of the critical ingredients to at least get started already existed in an animal disease diagnostic lab. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma topped 50, Stitt issued an executive order allowing Oklahoma’s research universities to test for COVID-19.

“The executive order from the governor’s office essentially made the Oklahoma State Department of Health and Oklahoma’s public research universities a kind of implicit consortium,” Sewell said. “It empowered the State Department of Health to treat the universities as partners rather than potential clients.”

OSU quickly became the testing lab for the majority of specimens from county health departments across the state and for many hospitals. Elizabeth Hutt Pollard, who took over as the Oklahoma secretary of science and innovation after Shrum, said OSU’s willingness to step up was a key to the state’s ability to navigate the pandemic.

“OSU has been an integral part of the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s and the governor’s response team to Covid-19,” she said. “Leveraging OSU laboratory capabilities and sourcing allowed us to quickly respond to the state’s testing needs and continue to expand our capabilities and service.”

The Cowboy Way

Within the Oklahoma State University system, the partnerships quickly crossed campus boundaries. The Center for Health Sciences has a high complexity diagnostic lab. The lab most equipped to accommodate the type of testing needed for COVID-19 was the Oklahoma Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory on the Stillwater campus.

A partnership between campuses was formed. Dr. Anil Kaul, the CLIA certified lab director at CHS, became the CLIA lab director for the Stillwater human testing effort, and the lab received its needed certification quickly. Leadership from Hargis on down believed in the project. Funds were allocated and additional equipment purchased.

When a solution was identified for a problem, the administration answered “yes.” The support continued with the faculty and staff and even many students. When it was evident the COVID-19 testing lab would require a host of people, Dr. Sewell put out a call for volunteers, and the volunteers came. From across multiple disciplines across the university, they set aside academic pride.

Bringing their skills sets, knowledge and an eagerness to serve no matter the task, more than 140 volunteers worked long hours in pursuit of a single goal: create a sustainable atmosphere for COVID-19 testing for as long as was necessary for Oklahoma. One group functioned as the Incident Management Team to coordinate logistics, purchasing, new hiring, security and initial public relations, while others worked in the lab itself or in a computer lab set up to manage the vast flow of information. Many worked their day jobs and volunteered for additional duties on nights and weekends.

“Most of what goes on at any university is disciplined-based, department-based, college-based at the broadest. As the vice president for research, I am used to working across many disciplines and bringing people together to collaborate, but most of the time we are still doing biology research, chemistry research, psychology research, etc.” Sewell said. “This is the first time I have ever worked on anything where the entire university is coming around a problem to solve. Everyone had different roles, and everyone had different skills to bring to the table. For the most part, people weren’t worried about what logo was on their shirt; they were worrying about, ‘Can we make an impact?’ That’s been the fun part of it.”

National Partners and the Future

The COVID-19 diagnostic lab on the Stillwater campus has changed over time. The lab settled into a sustainable operation over the summer, adding more laboratory staff as student workers prepared to return for their fall studies. Throughout, the OSU lab has maintained its place as the most productive COVID-19 testing lab in Oklahoma.

As other opportunities emerged — both for new types of testing and opportunities for streamlining — OSU is taking the next steps to expand and improve. A partnership has developed between Oklahoma State University and Infinity Biologix, previously RUCDR Infinite Biologic out of Rutgers University.

The FDA approved an emergency use authorization in the spring for RUDCR to perform a COVID-19 saliva test. Collecting saliva specimens means less exposure for health care workers, is less invasive for the patient and reduces the use of personal protective equipment in the field. Infinity Biologix developed the test procedures and worked with a specimen collection company to make the saliva collection cups for a high-throughput COVID-19 test.

OSU submitted its application to the FDA for saliva-based testing in August.

“We have partnered with Rutgers and replicated its saliva process,” Sewell said. “Its help has also been invaluable regarding the FDA application process.”

Another national partnership took shape through the Association for Public Land Grant Universities Council on Research. Many labs across the country have a hand in COVID-19 testing, although it’s unlikely that any two are doing exactly the same thing. Sharing information on roadblocks and successes will prevent universities from having to “reinvent the wheel.”

“We’ve formed something of a subcouncil on the various aspects of COVID testing so we can find out what’s working where,” Sewell said. “We hope this national partnership will result in an enduring network of university partnerships that will be equipped to react quickly to national pandemics.”

The lab, forged in the furnace of the pandemic, is now a permanent fixture in the OSU arsenal for helping combat COVID-19. In September, it moved to the university’s Venture I facility, further expanding its possibilities for growth and innovation. In the years to come, the goal is to continue and expand human diagnostic testing to be ready for future state, national and global needs.

“I cannot even begin to tell you how proud I am of OSU, just in so many ways,” Shrum said.“I think it really highlights the importance of our academic institutions and how they can really be resources in great times of need, not just for education but for catastrophic events.”

While the pandemic has confined life in so many ways, it also eliminated boundaries, removed academic walls and provided a ringside seat for witnessing the possibilities of partnerships focused on one overarching goal with little thought to who gets the credit.

“When we look at what is coming at us from a societal level and at a global level — whether it’s global economics or weather patterns or how to solve problems facing rural America — these are problem sets that are so big that we have to get out of our old way of thinking,” Sewell said. “The pandemic has at least shaken us by the lapels and gotten us to approach problems in new ways. I think we can apply that mentality to other wicked problems.”

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