Columbus region companies and research institutions are ground zero for development of the equipment, medicine and information sharing the world needs to combat COVID-19.

On Jan. 19, a 35-year-old man in the state of Washington visited an urgent care with a cough and fever. He had just returned to the United States from visiting family in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Nearly 2,500 miles away, scientists inside Columbus’ premier research institution realized they had a problem. Though the virus had yet to spread across the U.S. and become the singular focus of the 24-hour news cycle, the people at Battelle, which plays a key role in the global scientific community, were keenly aware of the outbreak happening in China. A decision was made quickly. Battelle would use its expertise in infectious disease to ramp up development of highly complex tests called assays to support the creation of a vaccine and therapies to treat COVID-19. The research giant’s work, however, didn’t stop there.

Across the street from its King Avenue headquarters sits one of the country’s largest universities and its renowned medical system. For years, leaders inside Battelle and Ohio State University have come together to advance health care. With a vaccine more than a year out and a shortage of COVID-19 testing, they decided to jointly develop a laboratory that could offer test results in as little as five hours. 

Gabe Meister, research leader at Battelle’s biocontainment facilities, says the institute can take risks when there’s an urgent need. Without weeks of hand-wringing about costs, in a matter of days the two organizations performed analytical validation and set up a lab.

The partnership is a result of the strong relationship between Dr. Peter Mohler, vice dean for research at Ohio State’s College of Medicine and director of the Dorothy M. Davis Heart & Lung Research Institute at the Wexner Medical Center, and Battelle’s CEO, Lou Von Thaer. 

We're here to help you stay in touch with what's going on out there. Read our latest reporting on the coronavirus response here.

“They moved mountains to bring this together,” Meister says. “Dr. Mohler and his team have been unbelievably open to these new faces (from Battelle) and the new instrumentation we brought in. We all just came together and said, ‘We’re all in, let’s find a way,’ and we did.”

Battelle has opened a second test processing lab at its West Jefferson facility. And Ohio State and OhioHealth helped the institute on a project sanitizing N-95 masks for Ohio’s first responders.

Meister says he’s now validating multiple testing options to keep the market diversified and protect supply chains. Battelle also will study the best ways for people to return to an open society, continuing work on a COVID-19 vaccine and therapies.

Ohio State University

One of the problems with testing for COVID-19 has been a shortage of kit components like swabs and the sterile solution that’s needed to transport them. In response, Ohio State researchers, in less than a day, created their own solution, receiving approval from the Food and Drug Administration in early April. The Wexner Medical Center worked with the colleges of engineering and dentistry to 3-D print more than 50,000 swabs for test kits that will go to hospitals across Ohio. Ohio State also is sharing the tests with other cities, including Detroit, Chicago and New York City.

Indeed, there are more than 80 research studies going on across campus in partnerships with the Wexner Medical Center and the James Comprehensive Cancer Center, including three projects looking for a vaccine. Other highlights include a clinical trial using plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to help heal others, and a study looking at nitric oxide for its antiviral properties and as a potential treatment to prevent the need for ventilators.

CAS

As the world leader in scientific information, CAS is positioned to help researchers accelerate the discovery of a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19. The organization takes scientific information from around the globe, extracts the details and makes them discoverable. The goal is to close the gap between the huge volume of information that’s available and the specific insights needed by a particular pharmaceutical company or research institution. 

In early April, the organization, which is a division of the American Chemical Society, released for free an open access dataset of chemical compounds with known or potential antiviral activity to support research, data mining and analytics applications. The dataset contains nearly 50,000 chemical substances. It also was uploaded at the Allen Institute for AI in response to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy call to action on COVID-19. 

Manny Guzman, the president of CAS, and Dr. Michael Dennis, vice president of innovation, say there’s been a huge appetite for COVID-19-related information. As of mid-April, the dataset had been downloaded by more than 600 organizations. 

CAS also has opened all its content, technology and people to anyone working on COVID-19 solutions. Its report, “Research and Development on Therapeutic Agents and Vaccines for COVID-19 and Related Human Coronavirus Diseases” has been downloaded a record 235,000 times. CAS also has translated COVID-19 public health information into Chinese, Arabic, Somali and Spanish for state agencies. And it donated 50,000 disposable gloves to local hospitals, including the Wexner Medical Center.

“This has been an energizer for us,” Guzman says. “This community of people we have here, everybody is absolutely leaning in to contribute. We can help connect the dots with the global scientific community.”

Plaskolite and Rogue Fitness

Private companies in Central Ohio are helping fight COVID-19, too. Thermo-
plastic sheet maker Plaskolite has 10 plants across the U.S. operating around the clock to help customers produce up to 3 million face shields per week and 200,000 partitions for grocery stores and other retailers. The company also has donated 5,000 face shields to Central Ohio hospitals. 

CEO Mitch Grindley, who was succeeded by Ryan Schroeder in late April but remained as executive director of the company’s board, says Plaskolite is having a hard time meeting demand for the plastic needed for both products. He expects the need to continue: There are more than 1 million retailers in the U.S., and he thinks most will want partitions to protect workers. Other plastic products could become commonplace in health care, too, including transparent boxes between doctors and patients. 

Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.

“The shift to make these products was a pretty easy decision,” says Grindley, who has been with Plaskolite for 37 years. “If we were doing other products that weren’t needed right now, I’d have trouble bringing people in. But our employees are completely behind this.”

Fitness equipment manufacturer Rogue Fitness also has revamped operations to make personal protective equipment, working with OhioHealth and the state of Ohio. In mid-April, Rogue was preparing to supply 500,000 masks, 300,000 face shield frames and 1 million face shields to medical groups. The company also is working on approvals for respirator hoods for medical workers.

Owner Bill Henniger says via email the company is donating PPE to homeless shelters, drug treatment centers and nonprofits. Responding to COVID-19 ties into its mission of doing “whatever it takes to get the job done.” 

“We started (the COVID-19 efforts) by providing internal stimulus packages to our team, then began buying 500 meals per day from local restaurants and buying groceries from Weiland’s (Market) for everyone at Rogue,” Henniger says. “The leadership team knows we have to help keep a healthy ecosystem as best we can. This has always been our mission and always will be.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.