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UD grad answers call for more COVID-19 testing

UD grad answers call for more COVID-19 testing

Michelle Tedford April 08, 2020

Every day, our nation and our world are calling for better access to accurate COVID-19 tests. Fred Tenover ’76 is answering that call.  

Fred TenoverStarting last week, the molecular diagnostic testing company Cepheid, where Tenover is vice president, began shipping tests that can provide results in 45 minutes. 

“The research development team worked for about 28 straight days non-stop to bring this assay to market,” he said. “This is really remarkable. Normally it would take us a little over two years start-to-finish to do an assay.”

Even more remarkable, he said, was the round-the-clock team effort happening while still maintaining the mandated social distancing policies in the lab while the majority of the company was observing the stay-at-home orders and working from home, even though Cepheid was designated as an “essential” business. The team effort is continuing through manufacturing and delivery. 

Tenover was part of the concept team that envisioned how Cepheid could adapt its current product, which already tests for viruses that cause respiratory diseases such as influenza and RSV, into a testing module for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Getting rapid, accurate results was paramount.

“When the doctor says, ‘What you have is compatible with COVID-19, and we’re going to give you a test and in five to seven days, you’re going to get an answer,’ that provides a huge amount of anxiety,” Tenover said. 

He described the company’s GeneXpert system as a “mini-molecular biology laboratory in a cartridge.” Already found in 5,000 hospitals, doctor offices and urgent cares throughout the U.S., plus an additional 18,000 machines placed in testing facilities worldwide, the system can test for the causes of up to 30 infections. 

“It’s so easy to use, and the tests are so fast that they can be done right there at the point of care,” he said.

GeneXpert system COVID-19 detection cartridgeHealth professionals collect a sample through a nasal-pharyngeal swab or nasal wash — for children who do not tolerate swabs, or for when swabs are not available — and the sample is inserted into a cartridge the size of a saltshaker. The cartridge contains all the chemicals needed to process the sample. GeneXpert systems can process up to 80 samples simultaneously, depending on the number of testing modules a unit contains, and begins processing the next sample as soon as the previous is finished. And it has been adapted for use all over the world. For example, in places without reliable power, Tenover said, the systems operate off car batteries charged by solar panels. 

Cepheid is ramping up to manufacture tens of thousands of tests in their facilities in Sunnyvale, California, and Solna, Sweden, he said. 

Once Tenover turned the project over to the development team, he took on a different role for the company: keeping Cepheid’s 4,000 employees worldwide safe. It’s a role that harkens back to his 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This included creating for Cepheid shelter-in-place protocols and guidelines for what to do if an employee or an employee’s family member is sick. 

“The safety of our employees is paramount,” he said. “It’s one thing to keep people safe, but then you have to make sure they also feel safe at work. … We’ve been calling in every morning now for the last two weeks to all of our facilities globally, to get a check on how things are going, and it’s going extremely well.”

“I’ve been through crisis mode more times than I want to remember.”

At the CDC where he was director of the office of antimicrobial resistance, Tenover took the lead on some of the largest infectious threats to human health. His lab tested all the anthrax involved in the 2001 terror attacks, and it tackled antibiotic resistance in both tuberculosis and MRSA. His work places him among the top superbug experts in the world. “I’ve been through crisis mode more times than I want to remember,” he said.

But it’s a mode that’s comfortable to him, reinforcing his vocational choice and his role as a member of a team working to ensure the health of the public. 

“I’m in the right place,” he said. “I love being a microbiologist. I love being in infectious diseases. I love being in infection control. I feel very confident that my training and my practical experience can help me bring answers and give enough background to why I feel that way that others feel comfortable.”

In an interview for a story on his 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Dayton, Tenover explained that his Catholic faith is fundamental to his science. “I see the two as interconnected — the integration of faith and science makes sense to me,” he said.

Tenover shares his expertise with UD in several ways. He is a member of the College of Arts and Sciences advisory board, a consulting professor of biology and a strategic adviser to the Integrated Science and Engineering Program. He appreciates the opportunity to contribute to both his alma mater and to global human welfare. 

“[Cepheid] is out to bring the power of molecular biology everywhere in the world,” he said, “and so they will be doing these tests in Kenya, in South Africa, in Singapore, all around the world — because that technology is available to people. It’s very gratifying to talk about the mission, but now we are able to step up and actually deliver.”

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