Search Magazine May 19, 2020 Updated July 20, 2020 at 2:52 PM

Help for heroes


Technicians work in the CLIA Lab at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Connecticut. JAX photo by Adam Mil-Homens and Mallory Ryan.

Coronavirus testing at The Jackson Laboratory helps Connecticut track and prevent transmission of COVID-19.

First responders, hospital workers, nursing home staff and medical examiners are the heroes of the coronavirus crisis. In Connecticut, those heroes have an extra super-power: fast, accurate COVID-19 testing by The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn.

In the early weeks of 2020, all potentially positive diagnostic tests for COVID-19 had to go through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, but nationwide demand for testing soon made it clear that a decentralized, state-by-state system would be needed. 

JAX had established its CLIA-certified lab in 2013 to translate future discoveries in genomic medicine, such as novel biomarkers for cancer, into new diagnostic tests. “We knew that we could mobilize our CLIA lab to conduct COVID-19 diagnostic testing,” says Charles Lee, Ph.D., scientific director of JAX Genomic Medicine. “And when we offered our help to the Governor and his team, they accepted it right away.”

UConn Health and Hartford Healthcare were the first two hospital systems to use JAX for COVID-19 testing, but soon other hospitals and healthcare systems were contacting JAX to request the service. Commercial labs were taking five days or longer to provide test results, Lee says.  If JAX could first strategically focus on the most critical cases (e.g., in-house patients and symptomatic healthcare workers) and turn around the test results right away, critical decisions for those individuals could be made quickly.  Hospitals could continue to use other labs for testing asymptomatic individuals and those outside the health care system, he notes.

Lee is a member of the Connecticut task force assigned to review options for reopening the state for work. “This is about getting the state open in a manner that's responsible, and that won’t lead to an increase in the rate of infection.” According to Lee, the public health community anticipates a second or even a third wave of COVID-19, and different coronaviruses could arise in the future.

“The mission of JAX is global health, and finding genomic solutions,” Lee says. “We’re prepared to expand our testing capability and work with our communities, so that we can rapidly control any future pandemics.”

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