Veterinary Diagnostic Lab rises to meet the challenges of the pandemic

By Aug. 17, the first day of the fall semester at Iowa State University, nearly 8,100 students had moved into university residence halls and campus apartments, and were tested for the coronavirus. Over the 17-day stretch, staff at ISU’s Thielen Student Health Center, along with dozens of support workers, put in long hours collecting samples, consulting with students, and answering questions from parents and families.

The tests were processed quickly, with most results delivered within 24 hours.

How was that possible?

The answer: Iowa State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. The VDL, long acknowledged as a guiding light in the realm of disease surveillance for the U.S. food animal industry, is shining in new ways since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The VDL’s highly trained veterinarians and technicians added COVID-19 testing capabilities to the long list of services the laboratory provides, taking on new challenges that would have been unimaginable a year ago and playing a key role in the university’s pandemic response.

The VDL and its staff have risen to meet the moment and exemplify the innovative spirit of Iowa State University.

The process started this spring when VDL leaders loaned diagnostic equipment to the State Hygienic Laboratory to help with Iowa’s COVID-19 testing program. The VDL then received the laboratory accreditation neccessary to provide clinical testing services to human healthcare providers. The VDL repurposed a teaching laboratory in the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine and launched a new information technology structure appropriate for processing human samples.

The world-class veterinary lab quickly became fully capable and accredited for conducting COVID-19 polymerase chain-reaction (PCR) testing to determine if human samples are infected with the coronavirus. The PCR test is extremely sensitive and capable of detecting minute levels of the virus. ISU students and their families can be confident in the accuracy of the test results. The VDL also conducts COVID-19 serology tests, which are capable of detecting viral antibodies in blood.

Although most of the tests processed by the VDL have been those of ISU students moving back to campus, the lab also is processing tests to support pandemic response efforts of local health care providers and blood banks.

Taking on the new responsibility of COVID-19 testing has not diminished the laboratory’s commitment to its core mission as the largest food animal diagnostic lab in North America. The VDL has roughly 165 faculty and staff on its team, plus around 50 student employees. The laboratory takes on around 100,000 cases every year, helping veterinarians and producers diagnose and manage disease threats to food animal production.

Faced with the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, the ISU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has found new ways to expand its capabilities, serve Iowans and embody the ISU commitment to innovation.