Monday, June 1, 2020
Lab Techs Battle Wind and Dust to Help Craft COVID Vaccine
Liza Green looks away as Ketchum Fire Lt. Lara McLean draws her blood.
Thursday, May 7, 2020


The drive to find a vaccine for the coronavirus took a temporary setback Wednesday as winds gusting up to 45 miles per hour ripped through the Upper River Run parking lot at Sun Valley Resort, dismantling tents and sending lab technicians scurrying to keep testing materials from blowing away.

After a gorgeously calm morning, the winds came up just before testing was to begin on day three of an antibody test that will be used to help researchers develop a vaccine.

As waves of dust blew across the parking lot, members of the Ketchum Fire Department and St. Luke’s Wood River Lab scurried to shut testing down before it even started. Then they decided to rearrange an abbreviated testing site ringed by fire trucks to shield testers from the wind. They were able to get more than half of the testing scheduled for the day in before postponing the remainder to today.

The blood that Ketchum Fire Lt. Lara McLean drew was destined for a FedEx jet to Seattle that afternoon so that lab technicians could begin analyzing it ASAP.

“Testing had been going well until this!” said Tom Bowman, former interim fire chief for the Ketchum Fire Department, now serving as a volunteer.

More than 4,000 Blaine County residents volunteered to have their blood drawn for the study, which Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin said will be the most accurate sampling ever done.

Originally, 400 were going to be tested. But the study was increased to a thousand to offer researchers a better sampling. The random sampling of both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals is being hailed as the gold standard for determining the prevalence of antibodies.

McLaughlin said another round of invitations to participate should go out today or Friday to some of the 4,000 who had volunteered. Testing will run through Wednesday, May 13.

Firefighters hasten to take down tents as the wind begins to roar.

Liza Green braved the wind on Wednesday to get tested, recounting how she’s had to reinvent her Café Della to one of the firefighters as Ketchum Fire Department Lt. Lara McLean stuck a needle in her arm, letting two teaspoons of blood collect in a two-inch vial.

She will learn whether she has antibodies from COVID-19 in two weeks. But McLaughlin said it may take months to finalize the rest of tests.

“I’m very glad to have the opportunity to be tested,” Green said, adding that she hoped the researchers will get some useful information from the tests.

McLean wiped down the table with sanitizing wipes between each blood draw.

Ouch! This blood is destined to help researchers determine a variety of things concerning the coronavirus.

The blood samples go from here to the University of Washington where they will be tested for antibodies to give Blaine County officials a clearer picture of just how many of the county’s 22,000 residents got the virus.

Antibodies are substances made by the immune system to help a body fight infection.

Nearly 500 residents have tested positive for the virus. But dozens upon dozens who have not been tested are convinced they had it. And it’s believed that 25 percent of those who have the virus never show symptoms.

At one point, Blaine County had the highest rate of coronavirus per capita in the nation and the world, surpassing even New York City and hard-hit countries like Italy.

Tom Bowman supervises as firefighters circle the wagons to try to create a wind block for testers.

After they go to the University of Washington, the blood samples drawn from Blaine County residents will go through a multi-step testing process in which they will be analyzed in more detail by individual doctors at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, which is considered one of the leaders in developing vaccines.

The researchers will look at markers in the antibodies, which could help them make vaccines. They’ll try to figure out whether antibodies confer immunity. And they’ll look at how different drugs that people may have been taking seemed to interact.

It’s hoped the study will determine whether there are indicators for predicting a mild or severe reaction to COVID-19 and help to determine the transmisibility of the virus, predict the duration of a COVID-19 outbreak,  whether herd immunity can be reached in a community and whether there’s a correlation between certain classes of blood pressure medication and severity of illness.

Researchers may do genetic testing to see why some people might get the disease while others do not.

Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in New York where McLaughlin’s sister Colleen McLaughlin works as an epidemiologist, will pair data from the blood with information residents provided on an online questionnaire to see what demographic groups the virus impacted most.

Blaine County’s study was proposed by McLaughlin after he asked his sister how Blaine County might get a better idea of how many people have been sick and how many are likely to get sick in the future. He  worked with Blaine County’s Emergency Services Medical Director Dr. Terry O’Connor to set it up.

Scientists spent a few weeks brainstorming what information they wanted to learn and how to develop testing to cover a variety of data. The Fred Hutchinson Center's Institutional Review Board finally signed off on it on Friday and local testers rushed to begin testing.

McLaughlin said a test like this would typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—private clinics have been charging between $100 and $150 for tests. But the Hutchinson Center and Albany College are picking up most of the tab.

McLaughlin said that Crush the Curve, which has been doing antibody testing in the Treasure Valley, may come to the Wood River Valley to perform antibody testing. Those who wish to be tested but weren’t chosen for this study can also go through clinics like Sterling Urgent Care.






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