For more than a year, the staff at the Integrated Research and Development Laboratory at Marshfield Clinic Research Institute have been running more than 6,000 tests a week to support multiple COVID-19 vaccine and epidemiological studies for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Right now you should all pat yourselves on the back," said Dr. Mark Thompson, a top CDC official when he surprised the research laboratory team during their regular team meeting Dec. 21.
Dr. Thompson is the deputy chief of science for the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the CDC Influenza Division. He played a large role in identifying the Research Institute as the reference lab for these research studies.
“You can spend your whole life doing work and not have it inform policy or other things, but major decisions have been made on the work that comes out of these studies," Dr. Thompson said.
These decisions included recommendations from the CDC for vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks during the spring/summer of 2021, and then the decision to wear masks again later in the year after the Delta variant emerged.
This impact on policy is expected to continue into 2022 with important groups like the CDC and the White House waiting on vaccine effectiveness results for the Omicron variant.
“The results from the laboratory work you all have done has given us the first estimate of the vaccine's effectiveness now for the first wave post-vaccine, for the Delta wave and chances are you will be one of the first to do it for the Omicron wave," Dr. Thompson said.
The rare nature of the lab work being conducted is primarily because it is really hard to do. Dr. Thompson mentioned there were some officials at the CDC that did not think it would be possible for one lab to test more than 5,000 samples a week.
That kind of high throughput and sustained effort is very difficult. The fact that the Research Institute had performed high volume testing for influenza with the CDC during the 2009 influenza pandemic demonstrated the capacity to build infrastructure and maintain it during a previous pandemic.
“The fact that you have been able to pull this off is really impressive and continues to be impressive," Dr. Thompson said.