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A call went out for COVID-19 testing help. This Ohio State team stepped up.


In the battle against the coronavirus (COVID-19), medical professionals have been struggling to test everyone who has symptoms. So when Ohio State’s College of Medicine put out an all-hands-on-deck call in mid-March for help in making the process more widely available, three faculty members immediately stepped forward.

A few hours after the call went out, Ana Sarkar, an assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, reached out to Jacob Yount, an associate professor in the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity and co-director of the Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Program, who called Amit Sharma, an assistant professor in the departments of Veterinary Biosciences and Microbial Infection and Immunity. 

One of the key elements that was in short supply in the testing process was a chemical mixture to preserve each test swab until the swab could be transported to a lab for testing.

"When people go to get tested, the process involves putting nasal swabs up their nose," Yount said, "and then those swabs have to go into a viral transport media (a chemical mixture) that stabilizes the virus on the swab until it gets back to the lab to get tested.”

With that mixture becoming harder to obtain, the team set out to create its own. Combing through some textbooks, "we figured out something we could make with (chemicals) already in our lab," Yount said.

"The trick was to create a mixture where the supplies could be easily purchased," Sarkar said. "There are a lot of recipes, but we found this combination would work best for this particular coronavirus."

Amit Sharma and Ana Sarkar work together to develop a chemical mixture to preserve COVID-19 testing swabs.
Amit Sharma (left) and Ana Sarkar work together on a chemical mixture that preserves COVID-19 test swabs while they're being transported to a lab.

The team made a small pilot batch for a quality control test, and after the mixture passed the test, "we had the clear signal to ramp it up," Sarkar said, with the support of Dr. Peter Mohler, vice dean for research at the College of Medicine.

Every other day or so, the trio get together and make 30 or 40 liters at a time, just enough to maintain freshness "enough for a lot of tests," Yount said.

"We work almost as if we're on call, if need be," Sharma said. "The virus transport media is being distributed to different locations."

Taking justifiable pride in their work, the trio put up a photo on Twitter of all the boxes of chemicals needed to concoct the mixture.

"It's actually pretty simple," Yount said. "It's not very complicated. It's four ingredients, and then we sterile filter it."

As Ohio State works to ramp up testing capabilities, Sarkar, Sharma and Yount continue to churn out the chemical mixture. 

"It feels really good to be doing something useful right now, for sure," Yount said.

Jacob Yount, an associate professor in the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity and co-director of the Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Program, labels a container of chemical mixture.
"It feels really good to be doing something useful right now, for sure," says Jacob Yount, co-director of Ohio State's Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Program.

In early-April, the Food and Drug Administration approved the solution for transport and swabs to collect samples, developed by scientists at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Read more about how this will expand and accelerate COVID-19 testing across Ohio and the rest of the nation.