Howard Price has a decades-old green notebook he keeps in his office at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and when a shortage of a critical laboratory supply nearly brought testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to a halt at the Medical Center in March, the notebook’s contents quickly became invaluable.
“We ran out of viral transport media — the liquid used to put the swabs in when they’re collected for testing — very early on in the process, and we couldn’t get any more,” said Adam Seegmiller, MD, PhD, executive medical director of the VUMC Clinical Laboratories. “Howard Price actually had a recipe in an old notebook, and he and his team have made thousands of vials of it from that recipe. They really saved the day.”
Price, who began working at VUMC in the dietary department in 1959, soon found his niche in a different field, providing support for laboratory research conducted throughout the Medical Center. Over the years he has overseen the handmade development of many forms of culture media — fungal, bacterial, mycobacterial and viral — that are important components of research and diagnostic processes. Inside his notebook, he found a critical recipe for viral transport media, or VTM, dating from his early years working with the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Department.
“We’ve been buying VTM for years commercially, but when all of this happened, everyone throughout the country was ordering a lot more of it than they normally do,” said Price, who now works as a technical supervisor for the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology. “I’m just lucky I was here at the time and was able to locate this procedure for making VTM that I did a long time ago. When we first started, we made 4,000 to 5,000 tubes of VTM in less than a week’s time. We’re still making it, but it’s slowed down to about 800 tubes a day.”
VTM is a balanced mixture of several chemicals, including Hanks Balanced Salt Solution (HBSS), Gentamicin sulfate and penicillin. Each component must be added in exactly the right concentration, and the mix must pass stringent sterility tests. Once prepared, the VTM is dispensed into sterile, capped tubes which are then individually labeled and stored carefully before use. When a swab specimen is taken at a testing site, the swab is inserted into the tube filled with VTM. The tubes can then be safely transported to the laboratory where testing can occur.