Lab Director Applauds Speedy Development of Vaccine
Posted on Friday, March 26th, 2021
Proud of the Profession: Kelvin McMillan, Laboratory Services Director at Mercy Health/Love County Hospital and Clinic, experienced unprecedented laboratory events during the coronavirus pandemic.
Laboratory scientists have distinguished themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers in the profession developed a vaccine in record time. Medical technologists performed laboratory testing at an unprecedented pace and volume to help patients get well.
In Marietta, specialists in Mercy Health/Love County’s laboratory labored under intense strain during the peak period of hospitalizations for the 25-bed facility. They performed a record number of diagnostic and other lab tests.
“The second week of January, the lab had never been so busy,” said director Kelvin McMillan. “We had the highest volume of tests ever performed here.”
Love County experienced 1,000 cases of COVID-19 in the 90 days ending on January 31, 2021. Hundreds of patients sought care through the clinic, emergency room, and hospital, often needing multiple laboratory tests over many days of illness.
“Wing A was full of virus patients, and Wing B still had to be served. We had so many assessment tests for the virus needing to be performed, we had to bring in a second device. One lab technologist spent the day just at that station, McMillan said.
“It was the first time in my (42-year) career to go through a period like this. I was dog-tired at the end of each day, but our team in the lab got the work done. I am most proud that our small group – Gay Galano, Carla Brown, Christa Kirby, Sara Lawson, and Richard Acayan -- rose to the challenge and got results to the doctors in a timely way.”
The six technologists have a combined 147 years of experience in the field. “Our laboratory has a good design. The testing stations are set up around a central counter. We’re not running into each other, and we are trained to start long tests and then do short tests," McMillan said.
In a normal year, the laboratory would be abuzz with flu tests, but very few cases of “A” or “B” flu were recorded. In February, for example, clinicians ordered 104 flu tests, but only 11 turned out positive. “Either the flu vaccine was very effective this year, or the mask-wearing, hand-washing, and wiping of surfaces that people practiced to avoid COVID-19 worked even better for preventing flu,” McMillan said.
Another way of saying that is that COVID-19 by its nature was more contagious than flu and occurred at a higher rate than flu despite the safety measures. “People also got sicker with COVID-19 and were more likely to die,” McMillan said.
“My impression of the COVID-19 virus was that when it started, no one in the world was immune. There was zero herd immunity. For other types of viruses in recent years, such as swine flu, children caught it, but older people had antibodies from prior exposure sometime in the past. COVID-19 was absolutely new,” McMillan said.
All of which makes the development of an effective vaccine for COVID-19 in just 12 months a point of extreme pride among laboratory professionals. “This was a moon shot,” McMillan said of the two fastest vaccine trials in the history of science.
The companies behind the advance were Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The ingenious technology behind the vaccines is known as synthetic mRNA or “modified RNA.” These companies worked on the process for 40 years with no approved products.
Then, Moderna, whose name is a conjoinment of the terms “modified” and RNA, partnered with the National Institute of Health in the U.S. and received tens of millions of dollars to develop vaccines against viruses. In 2018, Pfizer signed a deal with BioNTech to develop mRNA for the flu. With the coronavirus outbreak throughout the world, the two companies redirected their flu research to developing the coronavirus spike protein.
One researcher described the vaccine as “the biological equivalent of swapping out a tire.” The manufactured RNA fools our cells into making the coronavirus’s crown-like “spike protein.” Our immune system targets these fake proteins without disabling the mRNA. Later, if the virus reappears, our bodies recognize the spike protein again and attack it, reducing the risk of infection and blocking severe illness.
There will be plenty more virus- beaters developed through RNA technology in the future, McMillan predicted. Already researchers at Yale have patented a vaccine against malaria. Pfizer says it is planning to use it against seasonal flu. BioNTech is developing individualized therapies to teach the body to fight off advanced cancer. Synthetic mRNA therapies have been shown, in mouse trials, to slow and reverse the effects of multiple sclerosis.
“Every drug is examined for its ability to do something for viruses, and everyone has failed. Now the new technology for putting pieces of protein together to attack messenger RNA is the magic bullet. This is like landing on the moon,” McMillan said.
On the way to herd immunity for the coronavirus, McMillan issued a caution to those not yet vaccinated. They are at risk from vaccinated persons. “People who have been vaccinated can still be infected by the coronavirus and spread the virus. They are just protected from getting sick from the exposure. Unvaccinated people are unprotected.”
Under recently-issued guidelines from the CDC, mask wearing is still advised when in crowds or in confined areas. Vaccinated persons in the company of other vaccinated persons are safe to unmask.