'Just A Bit Of Saliva': COVID-19 Specimen Bank Propels Coronavirus Research In St. Louis

Jun 29, 2020
Originally published on June 24, 2020 11:01 am

Researchers at Washington University are collecting samples from hundreds of people who have had COVID-19 — including blood, saliva and urine.

As scientists scramble to answer a multitude of questions about the coronavirus, medical samples are becoming an ever more critical piece of the puzzle. By creating a centralized specimen bank and sharing samples among labs, Wash U physicians are hoping to streamline the research process.

Researchers often recruit patients individually for separate studies, but that kind of approach can be cumbersome during a pandemic, said Jane O’Halloran, an assistant professor of medicine at Wash U and infectious disease specialist.

“We knew that there were literally hundreds of questions that people wanted to answer,” said O’Halloran, adding that it could become “very overwhelming very quickly” for patients if multiple researchers contacted them simultaneously.

In early March, just as the pandemic was gaining steam in the St. Louis region, O’Halloran and Wash U assistant professor of emergency medicine Philip Mudd met to discuss the possibility of creating a COVID-19 specimen bank.

Two and a half weeks later, they began collecting their first samples from COVID-19 patients in St. Louis.

“The whole process would normally take at least six months,” Mudd said. “It was a very fast turnaround from conception to starting the project.”

When a patient is tested for COVID-19 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital or an affiliate testing site, hospital workers ask if they’d be willing to provide medical samples. A month later, the patient returns to the hospital for a follow-up visit and a second round of specimen collection.

About 20 labs at Washington University School of Medicine and the Danforth campus are now using the samples for a broad range of studies, including research on immune responses to the virus and whether genetic factors may put a person at higher risk.

Washington University immunologist Ali Ellebeddy is also using the samples to isolate human antibodies against the virus — which could be used in the future as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

“His lab has already generated several antibodies, several of which are very good at neutralizing the virus, at least in the test tube,” Mudd said.

The team is continuing to collect samples from COVID-19 patients in St. Louis, with the goal of recruiting at least 500 people.

Because so much of COVID-19 research is still in its very early stages, O’Halloran said, the samples are an essential part of understanding the virus and developing ways to prevent infection.

“I often think that people don't realize how valuable their contribution to this type of research really is,” she said. “They think, ‘Oh, it's only a blood sample, or it's just a bit of saliva; what am I contributing?’ but they’re actually contributing a huge amount.”

For more information on the COVID-19 specimen bank:

Washington University School of Medicine

Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit



Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.