Machine that helps animals thrive at Shedd Aquarium now helps identify COVID-19 cases

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — A state-of-the-art machine that helps animals thrive at the Shedd Aquarium is being used to help humans fight the coronavirus outbreak.

The instrument is called the KingFisher, and the Shedd lent it to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Chicago lab, where it’s being used to confirm the presence of the virus in patients.

Samples are collected from patients and then prepared for testing with reagents, or special chemical compounds. Then they are loaded into the KingFisher machine, which purifies and amplifies the viral RNA before the results are analyzed. After the samples are collected, prepped and analyzed, scientists can determine if there is evidence of COVID-19.

“I think it’s sort of an example of how sometimes we discover we can help in unexpected ways,” said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president for animal health at the Shedd.

The Kingfisher became an integral part of the Shedd’s Aquarium Microbiome Project, which has its own in-house laboratory. The project seeks to understand the bacteria, fungi and viruses that share space with humans and animals, Van Bonn said.

By identifying these microbes, animal keepers can better understand which ones should be introduced to the animals to ensure optimal conditions, allowing the animals to thrive as if they were in a natural environment while living in a managed one.

The Shedd purchased the $50,000-55,000 instrument after a donation was made to the aquarium. In the past, the aquarium had to send samples to other labs, which was not only more costly but also slow. The KingFisher was a “game changer” and Van Bonn said it accelerated the lab’s program by 10 years.

When testing became essential to combating the virus, the state public health department reached out to ThermoFisher, the manufacturer of the instrument, asking about its availability because it had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for coronavirus screening. The laboratory at the Shedd had been closed for weeks, leaving the KingFisher unused.

ThermoFisher reached out to the technicians and lab managers, asking if the Shedd would be willing to lend the KingFisher — and its accompanying components such as test tubes and reagents — out indefinitely for coronavirus testing. The Shedd said yes.

“We hope it will help reduce some of the uncertainty of this virus,” Van Bonn said.


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