(Texas Tribune) – Texas A&M University System officials say they have the largest public laboratory capacity in the state to analyze tests for the new coronavirus. Only one problem: The labs are designed to serve animals, and university system officials say the federal government won’t let them use the facilities for human tests.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services generally requires people with human lab experience to oversee human testing. To ramp up coronavirus testing in Texas, the A&M System is seeking a waiver for its Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory — but officials say their requests have been denied.
A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said the “federal red tape” is preventing Texas from making full use of the lab, which he said has years of experience testing animals with the same method used to test for the coronavirus.
“Red tape is one thing, but red tape in the middle of a pandemic is pretty ridiculous,” Sharp said in an interview. “This ain’t the time to follow the rules, this is the time to follow common sense and open up facilities that they know are some of the best in the country.”
A&M says it has a lab in College Station that could run as many as 1,800 tests per day; one in Amarillo that could do 1,000; and labs in Center and Gonzalez that could run 300 tests each. The labs have high capacities because they often have to test entire herds or flocks. The labs perform around 900,000 tests annually, 64,000 of which are done with the same “polymerase chain reaction” used to test humans for the coronavirus, system officials said.
For more than a month, A&M System officials have gone back and forth with the federal agency over fully scaling up its veterinary labs for human coronavirus testing. While the supplies to run the human tests are different than those used for animals, the equipment and the testing process are the same, said Bruce Akey, director of the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory.
On April 15, Akey asked HHS for temporary waivers after applications for the Amarillo and College Station labs were rejected on the grounds that their personnel do not meet the federal qualifications for human testing.
“We ask for consideration that the routine high complexity testing performed at TVMDL in support of animal agriculture be recognized as acceptable experience towards the qualification of our personnel to perform COVID-19 testing in response to this current pandemic,” Akey wrote in a letter to the federal agency.
The veterinary labs would analyze “tests from samples that people have taken at these test sites or at their doctor’s office,” a university system spokesperson said. On Monday, the lab in College Station began limited human testing through a temporary partnership with a local health care provider.
HHS did not respond to a request for comment.
“Our folks are not human medical doctors, but the reality is, the testing we’re talking about is exactly the same whether you're testing a human or an animal, in terms of the method and technology being used,” Akey said. “These resources to do additional testing are basically sitting on the sidelines when they could be helping out.”
Sharp said the Amarillo facility could make a difference in the Texas Panhandle, which is home to the massive JBS meatpacking plant that has emerged as a hotbed for the coronavirus. U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, has joined the university system’s effort to press the federal government.
“Animal health professionals, such as those at the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory in Amarillo, maintain the highest medical standards and can make a major contribution to more testing in the Panhandle,” Thornberry said in a press release. “I will continue to push federal agencies to make better use of the resources we have available in this fight.”
Disclosure: The Texas A&M University System has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.