OHIO-Ecuador connection helps combat COVID-19

A longtime collaboration between Ohio University and the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador (PUCE) is helping step up the rate of testing for COVID-19 infections in the Latin American country.

The Ecuadorian government recently approved allowing academic laboratories to help with testing by working through a heavy backlog of patient samples. The country is among the hardest hit in Latin America by the pandemic. Prior to the approval, only government labs could do the testing.

Among the handful of academic labs that have begun to assist in this effort is the Center for Research in Health in Latin America (CISeAL), a state-of-the-art collaborative research facility in Ecuador that opened in June 2016 as a joint venture between Ohio University and PUCE.

“Ohio University treasures the international partnerships that connect us to the larger world community, and here we can see striking evidence of the value in such collaborations,” Ohio University President M. Duane Nellis said. “The relationship we’ve built with the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador is enabling our joint research center to act quickly and provide a crucial health service for the people of Ecuador at a time of pressing need.”

CISeAL leaders helped lobby the Ecuadorian government to allow testing by academic labs, according to Mario Grijalva, Ph.D., who directs both CISeAL and the Infectious and Tropical Disease Institute (ITDI) at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine.  Grijalva also serves as professor of microbiology at the Heritage College.

“We were able to break the bureaucratic barrier that allowed only a small number of government laboratories to do the testing, allowing the academic laboratories to join the fight,” Grijalva said.

He said CISeAL, located in Quito, Ecuador, scrambled under the COVID-driven lockdown conditions to finish two major improvements to meet government standards for testing facilities. These included completing a clinical research suite and the development of all procedures needed to safely handle clinical diagnostic samples, complying with national and international quality control standards. In addition, CISeAL implemented a biohazard safety level three laboratory – the only one in Ecuador. This facility will allow CISeAL to safety conduct research into crucial aspects of the virus needed to fight the global pandemic.

After a glowing review and approval of the facilities by government inspectors, CISeAL started receiving patient samples during the week of May 4. Grijalva said these samples came both from private-sector health care providers and from the Ecuadoran Ministry of Health, which he said is “overloaded” with a backlog of some 20,000 untested samples.

“We’ve been processing 100 to 200 samples per day,” he added, noting that the complex, multi-step testing procedure, which requires both high-level quality control measures and safety precautions for testing personnel, takes about nine hours.

Additional testing will help Ecuador more effectively combat the pandemic through both treatment and containment, Grijalva said. “Early testing is really important for two reasons,” he explained. One is that knowing a person has COVID-19 is important information for doctors in prescribing treatment; the other is that knowing who is infected is needed for contact tracing to limit the spread of the virus.

Grijalva stressed that CISeAL’s testing support was enabled by a history of partnership between the two universities that dates back two decades.

“The fact that we are doing this is a result of 20 years of work that Ohio University has done in collaboration with the Pontifical Catholic University of Ecuador to create together the capacity, the infrastructure and the trained personnel to make this possible,” he said. “We have our alumni, trained at Ohio University, leading this charge.”

He cited as a prime example Jaime A. Costales, Ph.D., a principal investigator with CISeAL and an OHIO graduate.

“Ecuador is struggling to face the pandemic,” Costales reported from that country, citing an historically weak health care system and the current economic downturn as making the task more challenging.

“We are academic researchers; however, we are part of a research center, CISeAL, which is dedicated to research in human health,” he said. “Therefore, we feel the responsibility to be involved in the response against SARS-CoV-2. CISeAL is well-positioned to assist in this situation because of its infrastructure, equipment and personnel.”

Like Grijalva, he emphasized the importance of the OHIO-Ecuador connection. “The possibility to be part of the response against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic comes from decades of joint work between OHIO and PUCE,” he agreed. “Many of the current principal investigators at CISeAL received training at Ohio University. Joint work and investment by OHIO and PUCE have been crucial.”

May 14, 2020
Staff reports