Annie WatkinsUA Alum Contributing to COVID-19 Testing Development

You may or may not have had a test for COVID-19, but if so, it most likely was a test via a nasal swab. The Grubaugh Lab at Yale University has developed a test that can bypass that uncomfortable nasal swab, testing for the novel coronavirus via saliva  – and UA alum Annie Watkins is part of that lab group’s efforts. During her undergraduate research at UA, Annie initially joined the Department of Biological Sciences intending to study Alzheimer’s, but ended up finding her way to study the connection between Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV-1) and Alzheimer’s, which led to an interest in virology and applied, translational research.

“I almost definitely would not be in the program I currently am without my time at UA, and a good bit of that is due to the research and faculty relationships I had in undergrad. I worked in Carol Duffy’s lab on a few different HSV-1 projects – that work and the time that I spent with Dr. Duffy and Dr. Yu Wang really helped shape me as a scientist. I can’t speak highly enough of them as mentors. I also very much enjoyed Dr. Olson’s micro and pathogenic micro classes that further confirmed my interests in infectious diseases.”

Dr. Carol Duffy, who recently retired from the department, shared “Annie is one of the most intelligent, mature, and motivated students I’ve had the pleasure of working with. She is one of those special students I know will go far and I will always remember fondly.”

While nasal swabs have been prone to shortages over the last few months, the SalivaDirect test developed by Grubaugh and the Yale team, which received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA in August, does not require any swab or specific type of collection device, as the sample can be collected in any sterile container. “The ultimate goal of this work is to make testing more accessible and affordable which is, and will continue to be, so important.”

According to the FDA, “Yale intends to provide the SalivaDirect protocol to interested laboratories as an ‘open source’ protocol. Because this test does not rely on any proprietary equipment from Yale and can use a variety of commercially available testing components, it can be assembled and used in high-complexity labs throughout the country.”

This testing method was developed thanks to some funding from an unusual source – the NBA. While the target audience of SalivaDirectTM is the general population and not necessarily athletes (with labs currently being designated across the country to use the protocol), Grubaugh found opportunity in working with the NBA to accommodate their need for frequent testing, as this project had the potential to lead to developing a test that could benefit the greater population. Annie’s main role in this project has been to do much of the asymptomatic validation work through the partnership with the NBA. “Between another tech and myself we’ve tested nearly 3800 saliva samples from NBA players, staff, and vendors since the end of June.” A preprint awaiting peer-reviewed publication is now available highlighting the testing platform:  https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.08.03.20167791v2

Annie is currently a 2nd-year MPH student in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases with a concentration in Public Health Modeling at YSPH. Her current experience in graduate school may be different than what she anticipated a year ago “…but I’ve been so glad to be a part of it and to work with this team to do what we can to make a difference in these crazy times.”