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USM adds resources to coronavirus battle

The University of Southern Mississippi will be allocating its resources to help the health care battle against COVID-19.

In collaboration with Forrest General Hospital and Hattiesburg Clinic, Southern Miss will help provide COVID-19 testing.

“We are working with Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest General to devolve the test that was designed by the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) because we have the technical know-how and the instruments to do that test,” Dr. Mohamed Elasri, Southern Miss’ lead researcher and director of Mississippi IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, said.

Researchers at USM’s Center for Molecular and Cellular Biosciences are providing laboratory support by preparing viral transport media, which is used to transport COVID-19 testing samples to outside labs.

The Southern Miss team is led by Elasri, who supervises the work and takes responsibility for all the steps taken, and includes three associate professors, doctoral students and graduate students.

“I supervise all the work and take responsibility for all the steps,” Elasri said. “The students that are working on it are pursuing their doctorates in research in molecular techniques. Their research is far more complex than the actual tests. We just have to follow the CDC guidelines.”

The partnership began after Dr. John Fitzpatrick, a nephrologist from Hattiesburg Clinic, reached out to Southern Miss for the transport media.

“We had only 200 tubes containing viral transport media and were concerned that we may run out of testing tubes within the first few days of opening the Cough & Fever Clinic,” Fitzpatrick said. “Within two minutes they told us they had the ingredients for the VTM, including the appropriate laminar flow hood to make the medium under sterile conditions.”

Southern Miss repurposed its research labs in Johnson Science Tower to accommodate the process.

Along with creating more tests, Southern Miss will also be helping conduct high-priority COVID-19 tests.

According to Elasri, the team had to pass a validation run in order to begin its testing for the high-priority tests.

“It started with a validation run, meaning you do a number of tests to make sure that the technique is good,” Elasri said. “It’s a round of validation where you test out the results. The clinic has sent us swabs that were from the same patients that were sent to another lab. Then you compare the results and make sure you do it right. It’s a protocol.”

Southern Miss will be able to provide up to 50 high-priority tests on a daily basis.

“We had now resolved our tube shortage issue, which was threatening our ability to do COVID-19 testing,” Fitzpatrick said. “To date, the University of Southern Mississippi has made almost 2,000 tubes for Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest General Hospital and is now making VTM for other parts of the state to expand testing.”

According to Elasri, helping take part in the effort against COVID-19 was never a question.

“We were happy to do it because we have the equipment to do it,” Elasri said. “We would like to help out the community. At that point, tests were either going to Jackson or further out. They were taking seven days to return, which doesn’t help.

“My team has been working long days every day for the last three weeks. We are absolutely happy to do it because it’s valuable.”

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