Meet Minnesota's front-line scientists and researchers working behind the scenes to fight COVID

Dr. Elitza Theel posed for a photo in Mayo Clinic’s Infectious Disease Serology Laboratory in Rochester. Behind her is the automated testing platfor
Dr. Elitza Theel posed for a photo in Mayo Clinic’s Infectious Disease Serology Laboratory in Rochester. Behind her is the automated testing platform which performs serologic testing to identify past exposure and potential immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

— Anna Boone, Star Tribune

Susan Kline, M.D

Epidemiologist, M Health Fairview U of Minnesota Medical Center

In the wake of an Ebola outbreak five years ago in West Africa, 10 regional treatment centers in the United States with expertise in special pathogens developed a research network to study treatments for emerging infectious diseases. Epidemiologist Dr. Susan Kline led the University of Minnesota Medical Center team in Minneapolis, which contributed to a key study this spring of the drug remdesivir. Results from the treatment centers, combined with other study sites, give hope that some COVID-19 patients will see shorter hospital stays with remdesivir, a drug that previously was studied for Ebola patients. “When these infectious disease emergencies happen,” Kline said, “you’re going to learn more about the drugs and whether they’re efficacious against these novel pathogens if you have the strength of a research network.”

— Christopher Snowbeck

Eva Enns

Associate professor, University of Minnesota School of Public Health

As the coronavirus gripped the world last spring, experts at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health wondered: What if we built our own model tracking this totally new disease? Such a critical tool could help policymakers and others navigate the wiles of the virus depending on different scenarios. With degrees from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and experience crafting mathematical models chronicling the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV, Eva Enns was a natural to help lead the effort. The result was a U model created in unprecedented short order along with the Minnesota Department of Health. An electrical engineer, Enns usually conducts her work in obscure cloak of academia. Then Gov. Tim Walz referred to the model she helped create as crucial to the state’s policy decisions. “It was very rewarding.”

— Janet Moore

Priya Sampathkumar, M.D.

Chairwoman of infection prevention and control, Mayo Clinic

The virus that causes COVID-19 can spread through exhaled breath droplets, which is why front-line health care workers wear breathing protection in hospitals. But questions linger about whether personal protective equipment (PPE) prevents infections as well as it should, especially when reused in ways not intended by the manufacturer. Dr. Priya Sampathkumar has been studying hundreds of Mayo Clinic employees to test whether workers caring for COVID-19 patients are more likely to have antibodies to the illness than those who don’t. The study is ongoing, but the infectious diseases doctor said initial results suggest that Mayo’s staffing and PPE protocols can be effective, because so far there’s little difference in antibody rates between the two groups. “When the system is stressed and we don’t have enough staffing, that is the problem. It’s not that PPE doesn’t work.”

— Joe Carlson

Elitza Theel

Director, Mayo Clinic Infectious Diseases Serology Lab

Lab testing is usually a back-of-the-house job, but COVID-19 thrust Elitza Theel into the spotlight. When the pandemic emerged, Theel pivoted from researching Lyme disease to validating antibody tests for COVID-19. Theel has run Mayo’s serology (blood serum) lab for eight years, but never experienced such intense public interest, even when her lab pioneered testing for mosquito-borne Zika virus. She worked 12-hour days and soon Mayo’s lab was among the nation’s first to offer COVID-19 antibody testing. While people hoped positive antibody tests would grant them “immunity passports,” Theel said there’s no proof yet that people are immune from reinfection after recovering from COVID-19. Yet antibody tests have been vital in identifying recovered patients who can donate plasma for COVID treatment and in assessing infection rates in large groups.

— Jeremy Olson

Crystal Brakke

COVID-19 survivor and plasma donor, Richfield

Convalescent plasma could be a breakthrough therapy for COVID-19, so it’s no surprise that Crystal Brakke donated hers the maximum four times in four weeks in June after she recovered from the infectious disease. She had already donated blood platelets at Memorial Blood Centers 147 times — motivated by her father who had a universal blood type and donated often, and who benefited from an experimental cancer therapy five years ago. Likely infected during travel to New York in March, Brakke, 43, said she suffered high fevers and shortness of breath, but didn’t have severe COVID-19. More than 64,000 patients with severe cases have received plasma infusions through Mayo Clinic’s experimental program, but supplies have dwindled and blood centers have called for more donors. “I want to make sure I do as much good as I can with what I have.”

— Jeremy Olson

Rianna Vandergaast

Senior Scientist, Imanis Life Sciences, LLC

The body makes antibodies to fight COVID-19 but many of those tiny proteins don’t actually block the coronavirus from infecting a cell. Only “neutralizing antibodies” protect against infection. So Rianna Vandergaast spent much of her spring holed up in labs in Rochester, designing and running experiments on ways to detect neutralizing antibodies. In June, Mayo Clinic announced it would begin offering the first-of-its-kind test that Vandergaast and her colleagues at Imanis Life Sciences and sister company Vyriad designed to detect these difficult-to-spot proteins. The test will be used to see whether people can become infected with COVID-19 more than once, whether plasma from COVID patients can fight infection in others and how well vaccine candidates perform. In other words, she said, “Are those antibodies able to neutralize future virus?”

— Joe Carlson

Andrew Murray

Hennepin County epidemiologist

For a south Minneapolis kid now working long days to stem the tide of COVID-19 in Hennepin County, Andrew Murray admits the work “is exciting in a sense.” Also exhausting. Murray, 39, has been on the front lines of the fight since mid-May. Educated at the University of Minnesota, the epidemiologist said it’s rewarding to dig into the data to improve public health outside of the spotlight. “We are constantly thinking analytically about the data and just trying to improve everything we do,” he said of the work that seeks to prevent COVID-19’s spread — and lessen its grip. “I am not sure if a vaccine will actually help or if it will be long-lasting. We still have a lot of questions to answer.” With so many people getting sick, he said, every conversation “is an opportunity to provide information on how to keep them and their family healthy.”

— James Walsh

Ruby Nguyen

University of Minnesota associate professor

Before COVID-19 dominated daily life, Ruby Nguyen already was studying domestic violence in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health. Now she’s studying the effect of the virus and its subsequent stay-at-home orders on violence against women and children. The study will compare measures such as 911 calls, court filings and requests for housing and legal help in March/April 2019 to the same time frame in 2020. Nguyen, 47, who grew up in Minneapolis after her family escaped Vietnam in 1975, has a personal perspective. Her father’s struggles as a refugee contributed to heavy drinking and violence against her mother, who once went to the emergency room with a broken arm. “The stressors in my family were similar to stressors of the pandemic: social isolation, lack of resources, separation from family. We know now that there are red flags.”

— James Walsh