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Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab serves on front lines of COVID testing and response

March 26, 2021 By Katie Ginder-Vogel

Junior biochemistry major Maria Phillip scans in COVID-19 nasal swab test samples at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Photo: Bryce Richter

From February through June, we will highlight the ways that UW–Madison powers the state’s economy through research and innovation, educates the next generation and reaches out to Wisconsinites to improve their lives. March’s theme is Health. Watch for more at #CantStopABadger and #UWimpact on social media. Your support can help us continue this work. 

Since August 24, 2020, the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has performed nearly 200,000 COVID-19 tests on the UW–Madison campus. All the while, the lab has played a key role  handling a COVID-19 outbreak among Wisconsin’s mink industry.

WVDL also hasn’t stopped its usual work conducting infectious disease testing for the food animal industry and for veterinarians, responding to viruses such as avian influenza and African swine fever, and helping detect and track chronic wasting disease. The lab was created in 1999, although UW–Madison has provided animal disease diagnostic help to veterinarians and producers in the state since the 1930s.

Keith Poulsen Photo: Bryce Richter

“We’re a public health tool,” says Keith Poulsen, who has served as WVDL director  since 2019 and is also a faculty member at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “Every day, we work with the state hygiene lab, the state Department of Health Services, and Public Health Madison and Dane County.”

When the opportunity arose last spring to develop a reliable COVID-19 testing program for campus, Poulsen and his team rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Making COVID-19 tests for campus

Steven Lister, associate microbiologist, works with COVID-19 nasal swab samples in the testing lab at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Photo: Bryce Richter

To pull this off, WVDL partnered with the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and worked with state and local authorities to meet regulatory requirements and develop a COVID-19 diagnostic testing process. They had to make test kits and media, hire and train new staff, purchase or borrow specialized equipment, and scale-up quickly to be able to meet campus testing needs by the fall semester.

The lab now processes between 9,000 and 11,000 diagnostic PCR tests per week, often exceeding more than 2,000 tests per day.

At the same time, WVDL was addressing animal health needs in the state, including early concerns about transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes COVID-19) to pets such as cats and dogs.

Then, in November, the mink started to get sick and die.

Response to COVID outbreak in mink

It started with a smattering of reports involving cases of COVID-19 among mink in the Netherlands, leading authorities to call for efforts to slaughter the animals to prevent disease spread.

Poulsen began to prepare for what they would do when mink in Wisconsin inevitably contracted the virus.

Carly Olson, associate microbiologist, demonstrates placing 96-well COVID-19 nasal swab samples into a Kingfisher automated extraction instrument in the testing lab. Photo: Bryce Richter

“Wisconsin is one of the biggest mink producing regions in the world,” Poulsen explains. “Two vets in Wisconsin handle all the mink farms and consult all over the world. It’s a quarter-billion-dollar-a-year industry.”

In early October, one of the vets called WVDL to report unusual illness in mink. Hundreds of the animals were dying each day. Three people who lived on the mink ranch had COVID-19 symptoms.

Poulsen’s team sprang into action.

“We decided to get in the van and go,” he recalls. “On the way back, I did conference calls with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the (Wisconsin) Department of Health Services, to figure out what we would do when the test results came back positive. The National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa sequenced the samples right away, to prove the mink got sick from people. Another month later, another farm had a similar issue, with lower mortality rates.”

As part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, WVDL collaborates with over 60 labs around the country, all of which run approved equipment on approved protocols with the same proficiency testing to keep U.S. agriculture running in a disease outbreak.

At the same time that Wisconsin was managing sick mink, three other states — Oregon, Michigan, and Utah — faced similar outbreaks. Utah’s veterinary diagnostic lab did not have a COVID-19 test, so they sent samples to Wisconsin because of the WVDL’s participation in the NAHLN network and mink testing experience.

Efforts in the Netherlands and Denmark to control disease outbreaks through culling animals raised thorny questions about mink ranching. Poulsen emphasized that families, local economies, and the state economy are connected to Wisconsin’s mink ranches.

“You can’t just wipe it out — that’s what Denmark found,” said Poulsen. “Entire communities depend on that industry. There is already economic uncertainty, and we have to be very careful about what we do. It’s all interrelated. Animal health is directly related to human health, and that’s why I’m interested.”

Poulsen says an important lesson from the COVID-19 outbreaks on mink farms is that it’s critical to take a multipronged approach that addresses human health, animal health and environmental health. And, combining academic, industry, regulatory, public health, agricultural, local, and state perspectives proved useful.

“We dealt with Taylor County, and having all the disciplines at the table at the same time was really helpful,” Poulsen says. “No matter what the industry is, with infectious disease, there isn’t an easy solution. Removing the animals or the virus from that population is going to have an impact.”

Today, efforts are underway to learn more about COVID-19 in mink. WVDL sent samples from the animals to UW–Madison professor and global influenza expert Yoshihiro Kowaoka at the Influenza Research Institute. Kawaoka is studying the samples to glean new information and WVDL is sequencing every virus samples from COVID-19-positive mink to screen for mutations.

“This story has become another way we look at zoonotic and reverse zoonotic infection,” says Poulsen. “We’re spending a huge amount of resources to sequence every mink that has COVID-19, so we know what’s going on. Viruses mutate, and we know they do but not why.”

Home is where the cows are

Poulsen grew up in Wisconsin, attended Waunakee High School, and was a ski jumper at Blackhawk Ski Club in Middleton. He earned his bachelor of science in biochemistry at UW–Madison and his doctorate in veterinary medicine at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. After his internship year at North Carolina State University, Poulsen returned to UW–Madison for his residency and PhD, and then spent a few years at Oregon State University.

“I’m home now,” says Poulsen, who lives in Lodi, where he rides his road bike in the countryside and is a ski patroller at Cascade Mountain. “Home is where my family and the cows are.”

Poulsen is the only lab director in the NAHLN network who is a large animal internist, rather than a virologist, pathologist, or microbiologist. He credits his experience working on farms with an ability to focus on customer service.

“I’m a dairy veterinarian,” he says. “I know what it’s like on a farm, how to interpret results, and how to use them to work through cases on the farm.”

Poulsen brings that perspective to the WVDL, where content matter experts and bench scientists are encouraged to answer calls and provide expert advice.

“When anyone calls, we pick up the phone,” says Poulsen. “If we don’t know the answer, we can refer them or find out. That’s always been a key principle of our laboratory.”

Those skills, he says, have paid off this year.

Poulsen and Professor Jamie Schauer, director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene — which conducts a significant amount of COVID-19 testing for the people of Wisconsin —  talk almost daily about their projects and how to support and recognize their staff for their tireless dedication over the past year.

“Everyone stepped up to serve all the Badgers out there,” says Poulsen. “It’s not just us in the lab; it’s University Health Services and everyone collecting tests, testing samples, and giving vaccines. Vaccines are the light at the end of the tunnel.”

UW-Madison contributes $20.8 billion per year to the Wisconsin economy, and UW–Madison related start-ups contribute an additional $10 billion. Read more here.