Minimizing transmission: Testing asymptomatic healthcare workers to find silent COVID-19 carriers

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The following article appeared in Colorado State University’s SOURCE, a central hub for news about the university. The Ebel lab is grateful to Mary Guiden for the write up about our recent efforts!

Minimizing transmission: Testing asymptomatic healthcare workers to find silent COVID-19 carriers

A team of researchers at Colorado State University is leading an effort to help the most vulnerable people in our communities –residents in long-term care communities – during the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last two months, a lab run by Greg Ebel, professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, tested samples from 462 healthcare workers in Colorado to determine if workers without symptoms were silently carrying the virus. The tests identified 57 people who tested positive for COVID-19 but had no symptoms.

Ebel is partnering on this project with Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, director of the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at CSU.

Ehrhart introduced the concept for the groundbreaking project during a conference call with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and state healthcare leaders, including Dr. Greg Gahm, a geriatrician and corporate medical director of Vivage, which owns a range of skilled nursing communities in Colorado and Missouri. Following the call, he tracked down Ehrhart and asked, “How can we work together?”

The purpose of the research, Ehrhart explained, is to enact an early warning system in long-term care facilities that would allow them to temporarily remove asymptomatic but COVID-19 positive caregivers from the workforce until they were no longer shedding the virus. This would minimize the chance that these workers could unwittingly infect vulnerable residents.

“The scientific community is putting their heads down, working around the clock, and sharing data across cultural belief systems and across borders that are closed right now. It’s an incredible moment of humanity and it’s the greatest interdisciplinary scientific effort that’s ever happened on Earth,” Ehrhart said.


Disease surveillance

The concept behind the research is a basic principle in disease surveillance, especially during a pandemic, said Ehrhart, a veterinarian and professor of surgical oncology at CSU.

Ehrhart said the team will sequence the virus genomes from these samples, which will provide information about how the virus is being spread. This will help them determine whether it’s due to a common source within the facility or if it’s being brought into the facility from the community.“We don’t know when people become infectious with COVID-19,” she said. “It’s possible that they could be infectious prior to the onset of symptoms. It’s important that when there’s an at-risk community, like seniors, that we think about how to minimize the potential for transmission.”

Graduate student volunteers – trained and certified to transport pathogens –  are serving as couriers, picking up swabs at facilities and delivering them to Ebel’s lab.

Gahm said that there are numerous reasons why his organization would like to know if asymptomatic workers test positive for COVID-19.

“It allows us to identify those people to say: you’re positive, even though you’ve been wearing a mask and following other safety protocols,” he said. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the health department is saying you need to go home at this time.”


Existing virus tracking methods

The tests being conducted in Ebel’s lab are similar in principle to the tests his team has used for West Nile virus surveillance in northern Colorado since 2014.

“We’re using equipment, approaches and efficiencies we developed from doing this type of work every summer, to try and protect the health of Fort Collins, Loveland and Berthoud residents from West Nile virus,” he said.

Ebel said what’s currently needed in response to the pandemic is a public health approach, and rapid testing.

“The crisis in test availability was bewildering,” he said. “A physician in a clinic wants an ironclad diagnosis. We provide something slightly different: rapid information on infection among people who aren’t showing symptoms.”

Ebel said the team first tests to see if there is any evidence at all that these healthcare workers have the RNA of the virus in a swab taken from the back of the nose.

“When we get a sample that is positive, we test it with two additional assays for confirmation,” he explained. “If an individual’s sample is positive using three different assays, there is very little doubt the person is infected with coronavirus.”

The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at CSU – recently certified to conduct lab testing on human samples – is confirming the positive tests.


Helping the research community

Despite the trying times, Ebel says he’s in a perfect position to help scientists and the broader public health community learn more about COVID-19.

“For anybody who has been a virologist or infectious disease researcher, this is what we’ve been training for,” he said. “It feels good to do some small thing to help try and make things better.”

Ehrhart said that it’s been exciting to watch CSU’s scientific community collaborate in a way she’s never seen before.

“In order to do the screening tests, we need graduate students who have biosafety training to pick up test kits,” she said. “We are working with researchers who are computer modelers, because they are interested in looking at the data. All of these people are working as volunteers, and we see examples of this kind of collaboration happening all around the world.”


This research project is currently supported by startup funds through Ehrhart’s work at the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at CSU and Ebel’s lab. Additional support comes from the Office of the Vice President for Research at CSU, College of Health and Human Sciences, College of Natural Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Walter Scott, Jr. College of Engineering.

With thanks to the team at Colorado State University’s SOURCE.

Bekah McMinn featured by CSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research

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Ph.D. Candidate Bekah McMinn was featured in a recent video from CSU’s Office of the Vice President for Research.

In the video, she discusses her work on xenosurveillance in Guatemala and its implications for global disease surveillance. “Being able to sample blood from humans and animals in mosquitoes is a huge sample source that we can utilize for a number of different things… the number of applications is kind of limitless.”

With a shout-out to Dr. Anna Fagre and our partners in the Kading laboratory!

Ebel Laboratory WNV research featured in Westword

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The Ebel laboratory’s research on West Nile virus (WNV) in crows was recently featured in Westword. The article addresses ongoing protests from PETA and emphasizes the involvement of CSU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which approves and creates humane protocols for all experimental procedures that are administered to the birds.

From the article: “What we’re trying to do is to understand at a really fundamental level how [WNV] works and why it works the way that it does,” [Ebel] says. “It’s basic science, but it’s the foundation of anything that we’re going to do ten years from now.”

With thanks to Westword reporter Hannah Gartner.


Reyes Murrieta honored at 2019 SACNAS conference

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Ph.D. Candidate Reyes Murrieta was honored at the 2019 SACNAS National Diversity in STEM conference. He presented his research on the effect of extrinsic incubation temperature on Zika virus population genetics and won an award for his oral presentation in the category of Life Sciences (Ecology/Evolutionary Biology & Plant Sciences/Botany).

The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) awarded 82 underrepresented minority students at the conference for their scientific work and presentation skills.

Reyes has been with the Ebel lab since the summer of 2015. His research uses computational biology and experimental virology to study how different ecological and environmental conditions may impact Flavivirus population structure.

Pictured: Reyes Murrieta (left) at SACNAS 2019.

Pictured: Reyes Murrieta (left) at SACNAS 2019.

In memory of Renna

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Ebel lab alumni Dr. Joseph Fauver has been featured in the Omaha World-Herald after naming a newly-discovered virus in honor of his late canine companion, Renna. From the article:

A picture of Renna the dog.“As a graduate student at Colorado State University, Springfield native Joseph Fauver helped discover seven new kinds of mosquito viruses while researching the Zika virus in Mexico in 2016. When he and his girlfriend put their dog Renna to sleep last summer, the 28-year-old Washington University research scientist named one of those viruses in her honor.

“It’s the best scientific achievement I have,” Fauver said.”

Learn more about Renna by visiting the Good News section of the Omaha World-Herald. Dr. Fauver’s work on rRNA depletion is featured in the February 2019 issue of Virology. With thanks to World-Herald staff writer Chris Peters.

Dr. Alex Byas featured on KUNC

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Dr. Alex Byas’ work on Colorado tick fever and Powassan virus was featured on KUNC as part of a story by the Mountain West News Bureau (MWNB). Learn more about Colorado virus surveillance efforts and Byas’ “tick smithereens” by tuning into KUNC or visiting their website.

With thanks to MWNB reporter Rae Ellen Bichell.

Pictured: Dr. Alex Byas holding a tube of homogenized ticks. Photo by Rae Ellen Bichell.

Lexi Robison honored at 2018 CURC showcase

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Undergraduate research assistant Lexi Robison was honored for her work at the CSU CURC (Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity) research day. Her poster, ‘Chikungunya virus replication and transmission by Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes decreases over time,” was awarded College Honors.

Lexi has been with the Ebel lab since January 2016, where she has worked under the mentorship of Dr. Claudia Rückert. Lexi has been involved with several projects examining CHIKV replication and transmission dynamics. She maintains the Ebel lab’s Cx. quinquefasciatus and Cx. pipiens colonies and has also worked on generating CRISPR/Cas9 constructs to knock out specific genes in mosquitoes.

Lexi is currently a junior in CSU’s Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology (MIP) program. She is majoring in microbiology.

Pictured: Dr. Claudia Rückert (left) and Lexi Robison. 


Pictured: Lexi Robison at CURC 2018. 

Xenosurveillance paper in ASTMH

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Dr. Joseph Fauver’s paper on xenosurveillance, a new method of disease surveillance that uses mosquitoes as sampling devices, has been published in ASTMH.

The Ebel lab and its collaborators have previously demonstrated that xenosurveillance can detect viral RNA in both laboratory and field settings; this new paper builds upon existing research and shows that xenosurveillance can 1) detect Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus and Zika virus, and 2) may be used as a tool to expand surveillance for parasitic and bacterial pathogens as well.