The People Behind the Early Detection Program

January 31, 2021

Part One

After developing a highly-accurate COVID-19 test for employees at Michigan State University’s Grand Rapids Research Center, Joseph Patterson and Allyson Cole-Strauss were assigned a much larger task: Could they create a similar program for the entire university?

That meant scaling up to test nearly 50,000 students and many thousands of faculty and staff each week.

“At the beginning, it was sort of academic,” said Cole-Strauss, a laboratory manager in the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Neuroscience. “We thought it might be useful to people in our department. Just when we thought we’d gotten something launched, the bar was raised.”

She and Patterson have spent the past several months developing the COVID-19 Early Detection Program, setting up and equipping a new lab, and hiring and training employees to conduct the tests. That meant working long days and nights, often until 2 a.m., as well as weekends.

“It’s something I never thought I’d have to do,” said Patterson, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Translational Neuroscience. “In one regard, it was some of the most stress-inducing insanity you can think of, putting together a lab and training all these people.”

But it also was satisfying knowing that their work could stem the spread of COVID-19 and possibly save lives.

Last March, as COVID-19 began spreading around the globe, Patterson read papers on a web site by researchers in Wuhan, China, where the disease first emerged, suggesting that a machine called a Droplet Digital PCR could more-accurately detect the virus than other tests. The college routinely used a Droplet Digital PCR for testing tissue samples, so he approached his boss, Jack Lipton, PhD, chair of Translational Neuroscience, suggesting they use it to develop their own test.

Lipton, who would become director of the Early Detection Program, agreed, so Patterson and Cole-Strauss took on the task, first on a small scale.

Lipton called Patterson and Cole-Strauss “the two main unsung heroes of this program. It’s a massive undertaking to go from an idea to developing an en masse testing program for one of the largest universities in America. We’re talking breakneck speed.”

After university administrators decided last summer to expand the testing university-wide, Cole-Strauss began ordering new machines, pipettes, incubators, reagents, and everything else needed to outfit a lab. Patterson oversaw the scientific aspect, making sure the testing protocol would provide accurate results. Both recruited and trained technicians to staff the new lab, which now fills half a floor in MSU’s Bioengineering Facility on the East Lansing campus.

The lab is outfitted with six qPCR machines, similar to the Droplet Digital PCR, which will allow testing more samples much more quickly. Unlike the standard test, which uses nasal swabs, the new program tests saliva.

Participants are provided Spartan Spit Kits to collect their own saliva samples at home, which they deposit in drop boxes around the campuses. To save testing reagents and time, the lab combines several saliva samples for batch testing. If a positive result comes back, the lab can identify which participant was positive, and that person is retested. If the second test confirms the participant is positive for COVID-19, he or she can be quarantined to avoid infecting others.

“If we can find one person who’s asymptomatic but tests positive, we can pull them out of the population, and then we’ve stopped the spread from that one person,” Patterson said.

The effort did not end with setting up the lab but required a university-wide effort to design and distribute test kits and collect the specimens.

In September, the lab began testing asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff on a voluntary basis. That meant analyzing some 600 to 800 samples each day. As students return next week, the testing becomes mandatory, requiring much more testing by the lab, which has a capacity of 4,500 tests each day.

Asymptomatic students living, working, or attending classes on any of MSU’s campuses will be required to submit spit samples each week. Other students, faculty and staff may voluntarily join the program.

Participants can register on the COVID-19 Early Detection Program web site.

“Figuring out how to scale it up was a huge undertaking,” Cole-Strauss said. She soon will return to her previous work managing Lipton’s neuroscience lab in Grand Rapids.

“It’s been an incredible opportunity to be useful,” she said, adding that it was “an incredible challenge.”

Patterson, who will eventually turn more of his attention back to his Parkinson’s disease research, added: “Every day I walk into this lab, and I’m surprised how far all of this has come in such a short time.”

Part Two

Last summer Laura Bix, a Michigan State University professor of packaging, got a call from another college of the sprawling institution. Could she design a package for a COVID-19 test kit to be distributed to students, faculty, and staff throughout the university?

The call was from Jack Lipton, PhD, chair of the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Neuroscience, who was in charge of developing the university-wide Early Detection Program offering weekly tests to students, faculty, and staff.

“They contacted me, I don’t know, in July or early August – everything kind of blends together in COVID world – that Jack’s team had an idea for a COVID test that could keep people at MSU and beyond safe,” Recalled Bix, PhD, from the School of Packaging.

It was a massive undertaking requiring the talents of faculty, staff, and even students throughout the university. As the virus spread beyond control, Bix was asked not only to design a package but to do it quickly.

“For me – for anybody in packaging – this was an effort we wanted to be involved with,” said Bix, who also is an assistant dean in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “To be able to do something that has practical meaning and impact was very energizing to me.”

Not just any box would do. Unlike other COVID-19 tests, the one Lipton’s team developed analyzes saliva – not nasal secretions – so students and others can collect their own samples at home without medical help. The package needed to include a plastic tube for subjects to spit in, a pipette to transfer saliva into a second tube containing chemical reagents, and a biohazard bag. The box also would serve as a stand to hold the two tubes upright.

“I believed in it from the very beginning,” said Bix, who had experience designing medical packaging. “The beauty of it is we could immediately start making something that met their needs right here on campus.”

She enlisted help from Dennis Young, a specialist in the School of Packaging, and Aaron Walworth, the school’s laboratory manager. Together they designed the box and, using a computer aided machine called a plotter table, cut them out from heavy paperboard stock.

Normally the plotter table is used for creating prototypes. Because of the urgency, a team of several students, led by Walworth, used it to cut out 15,523 boxes. Bix, students, and other school of packaging employees began filling and labeling the boxes to ready them for distribution before classes resumed in the fall.

Many more boxes would be needed, so she contacted a North Carolina company, where she had once worked, to produce a commercial version that enabled quicker assembly and filling than the one produced on campus. Each Spartan Spit Kit is printed with the Sparty logo, instructions and a QR code for users to scan with their phones, taking them to a web page, where they can pair their uniquely identified saliva sample to their identity.

Bix called on former students to help in creating the bar codes, which professionals in the information technology department used in building a system to record and track each individual test while assuring accurate results and patient confidentiality.

Participation was voluntary during fall term. With the start of classes this month, it became mandatory for all undergraduate students living, working, or taking classes on campus.

So many people from so many parts of the university – medical research, packaging, logistics, information technology, communications, and others – all came together to make it happen.

“The thing that’s been rewarding to me has been working with people of such diverse backgrounds,” Bix said. “Having everybody listen to everybody else and having all these pieces fit together has been very rewarding.

“It’s the Land Grant philosophy,” she added. “We work across disciplines collaboratively to solve real and practical problems.”

Part Three

Beginning last July, Brian Jespersen began making rounds in his car, occasionally with his two children strapped in the back, dropping off COVID-19 test kits and picking up saliva specimens for testing.

It wasn’t part of his normal duties as director of operations for the College of Human Medicine, but, on the other hand, the pandemic had forced changes on most Michigan State University employees.

As part of a multi-departmental team planning a massive program of weekly testing for students, faculty and staff, Jespersen oversaw logistics, figuring out how to distribute test kits and return saliva samples to a lab for testing. The project would require a team of drivers to make the rounds, but some were worried they could be exposed to the virus.

“I had to know the protocol was safe,” Jespersen said, so, with few other options, he decided to make the early rounds himself. “That really helped me get people on board,” he said. “We really had to do it in a safe and effective manner.”

Researchers in the College of Human Medicine’s Department of Translational Neuroscience developed the test last spring and initially offered it to employees of the Grand Rapids Research Center. The pilot program was so successful that administrators last summer decided to expand it university-wide.

Unlike most COVID-19 tests, the MSU test analyzes saliva rather than nasal mucus collected with swabs, so students and others can collect their own samples at home.

Gearing up the Early Detection Program required the expertise of employees throughout several department to outfit a laboratory, hire and train lab technicians, and design Spartan Spit Kits to be distributed to thousands of students, faculty, and staff.

Jespersen was tasked with figuring out how to distribute the Spartan Spit Kits each week and return samples to the new laboratory in the Bioengineering Facility on the East Lansing campus. Working with campus police, Residential and Hospitality Services, and the Office of Planning and Budgets, he identified several locations on the campus and around East Lansing where spit kits could be available and saliva samples dropped off.

“We wanted to make a system that was flexible and convenient for everyone,” Jespersen said.

He began scouring web pages, looking for containers, something like a trash cans with slots that could be adapted as secure drop boxes for the saliva samples. The drop boxes had to be sturdy, weather-resistant, and compliant with federal law guaranteeing patient confidentiality. He found what he needed and had them set up at 21 locations, each weighed down with 300 pounds of sandbags so they couldn’t be blown or carried away.

Jespersen recruited six drivers – some of them university employees furloughed during the pandemic – to make the rounds in three cargo vans eight hours a day in East Lansing. Three times a week they headed to Grand Rapids.

To avoid exposure, drivers are given gloves and other personal protection equipment. Each tube containing saliva samples is sealed in a biohazard bag and deposited in large bags inside the drop boxes that can be sealed and delivered to the lab.

The College of Osteopathic Medicine arranged to deliver test kits and pick up specimens in Southeast Michigan. Eventually, the testing will be offered in Flint, Jespersen said.

At the start of fall term, the testing was voluntary for students, faculty, and staff. When classes resumed this month, weekly testing became mandatory for students living, working, or taking classes on campus.

Thanks to the efforts of countless employees throughout the university, the Early Detection Program is working smoothly, helping stem the spread of COVID-19 and possibly saving lives.

“I’ve not undertaken a larger project in my life,” Jespersen said, “and I’ve taken on a lot of them.”

The Team

These are the people behind the scenes whose hard work and long hours enabled the university to launch the Spartan Early Detection program.

Original Research Team

  • Jack Lipton
  • Caryl Sortwell
  • Joe Patterson
  • Allyson Cole-Strauss
  • Irving Vega
  • John Beck
  • Andrew Umstead
  • Claudia Finkelstein
  • Nathan Kuhn
  • Joe Kochmanski

Surveillance Committee

  • Birgit Puschner
  • Aron Sousa
  • Joan Rose
  • Victor DiRita
  • Dru Montri
  • Ra'ed Hailat
  • Jade Mitchell
  • Annette O’Connor
  • Betsy Matazel
  • Amy Nienhouse
  • Krishna Yelleswarapu
  • Lynn Kriser
  • Danielle Barnes
  • Yesim Askin
  • Doug Gage
  • Brian Jespersen
  • Melanie Kauffman
  • Ezra Brooks
  • Rosemary Ridsdale
  • Gustavo de los Campos
  • Claudia Holzman
  • Jen Davis
  • Robert Barto