1 month ago

Huntsville’s Diatherix a national leader in cutting-edge COVID-19 testing technology

When reliable testing for COVID-19 became a national priority earlier this year, one company in Huntsville was already set up to take on a leading role.

Diatherix was equipped to offer testing through its cutting-edge technology, and it was able to do so in a way conducive to effective treatment of the virus by providing same-day results.

An infectious disease clinical laboratory located in the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Diatherix provides testing capabilities for doctors’ offices, hospitals, reference labs and nursing homes.

In a recent conversation with Yellowhammer News, Diatherix president Jennifer Cart described her company’s role in confronting the coronavirus pandemic.

“We essentially provide a laboratory service so that physicians can more accurately diagnosis their patients,” said Cart. “We are squarely seated in this rapid, providing of same day results for the specimen so we are giving very timely and accurate information in infectious diseases.”

Having been in business since 2008, that role is reflected in the company’s name, which Cart explained represents “where diagnostics meet therapeutics.”

While conventional laboratories provide more generalized testing on a broader range of specimens, Diatherix’s more tailored focus allowed it to rise to the occasion on the front-end of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.

“We are very uniquely specialized in infectious disease, and our proprietary technology is a very high-throughput multiplex that makes us able to run a high volume of specimens with multiple results,” outlined Cart.

The team at Diatherix began its assessment of the coronavirus in December 2019, according to Cart. This early evaluation allowed the company to hit the ground running when the need arose for mass testing.

“Because we are focused on infectious disease, we are always monitoring for emerging pathogens, so this was not our first emerging pathogen,” she remarked. “We have seen in the past MERS, which came from UAE, the Middle East. We are always looking and watching, and then we make determinations whether or not we think it is going to be a player in the United States such that we would need to develop the assay.”

That understanding brought about a testing procedure, or assay, in record time.

“In our history this was probably our fastest launch of a new assay because we actually have it as part of a very complex group of other viruses so we could right off the bat determine if it was COVID or flu right out of the gate,” said Cart. “We already had that capability in March. Everybody has been talking about having that now, having it for the fall. We have already been positioned for that and been able to run results since then.”

Since March, there have been 8.8 million coronavirus cases in the United States. Alabama has seen a little over 160,000 confirmed cases in that same period.

The volume of work at Diatherix has matched the country’s case counts throughout the year.

“From March through July, it was on a very rapid, accelerated incline,” Cart noted. “We then hit a bit of a stabilization in August and September. We are back to what I would not say as rapid of an incline, but a steady incline.”

The nation’s peak for new case counts occurred July 24 when 74,710 new cases were registered with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Reported daily cases dipped to 23,301 on September 8. The United States hit a new daily high on October 24 when the CDC registered 83,851 new cases.

Without revealing specific internal data, Cart estimates that Diatherix has averaged around 100,000 tests per month, a figure which puts the company on track to process more than one million coronavirus tests by the end of 2020.

Heavily reliant on overnight shipping, specimens have arrived in Huntsville from providers across the country.

As an example, Cart recalled the work Diatherix did for numerous drive-thru testing sites in states like Michigan, Tennessee and Florida. The process, she said, was no different than a normal physician’s office except they received 300 to 400 specimens per day from places which would normally send them five.

To handle the volume, the layout of the facility had to change. The basement was cleared, and packages were routed down there for opening and specimen transport to the labs.

Even with state-of-the-art equipment and proprietary testing processes, Cart points to a single aspect of the company which has allowed Diatherix to weather an unprecedented strain this year.

“People are our greatest asset,” she emphasized.

Since the beginning of the year, Diatherix has hired 100 new employees, placing the company’s personnel total at 250.

“It is all hands on deck,” said Cart. “First of all, our lab, our R&D team and our client services has been consistently working since developing the test and running the test. There have been no breaks. It’s a pounding intensity that has been relentless and has not stopped.”

The paperwork that accompanies such a high volume of specimens has been daunting. Employees were called to fill multiple roles to handle more than 20,000 documents received daily.

“We had people outside of their normal job, and everyone still had their normal job to do, doing that just so we could get the results out,” explained Cart. “Because we know how important it is to have the same day results at the time when many labs are doing five, six, seven, ten days waiting for the results, which becomes less useful information to the physician once it gets past the date of collection.”

A graduate of the University of Florida, Cart mentioned to one of Diatherix’s employees, who was a native Alabamian, how impressed she was with the way the team was handling the increased workload during the COVID crisis.

“She replied to me, ‘That’s what we call hard stock,’” recollected Cart.

That can-do attitude prevalent among Diatherix’s employees has made quite an impression on the company’s leader.

“It brings tears to my eyes to think about what our employees have given up to be there every day, to do what we need to do not only for the company but for the state and for the country in the pandemic,” Cart remarked. “Their kids are at home getting home-schooled by their spouse or their with grandparents. We have done everything we can to support them but ultimately they are really carrying this company and carrying us forward. It will be something that, in my career I’ve learned a lot as a leader, but the biggest impact to me is how I’ve seen these employees and the people. I can’t even describe it. It is hard stock is the best way to put it.”

The United States has seen a surge in coronavirus infections during October, and several European countries are renewing lockdowns.

A forward-looking approach has helped Diatherix prepare for whatever is next in the fight against COVID-19, according to Cart.

“We have already been making changes,” she outlined. “As part of our normal process, with viruses in particular, viruses can mutate. They call it antigenic shift. We are always blasting the viruses, not just SARS-CoV-2, but influenza A, B, anything that essentially could have viral antigenic shift, and watching for that. We are always monitoring for the need to put in a different sequence or different target for our assay to be even more robust.”

As Cart and her team move forward, they see no signs of letting up, themselves.

“The ramp up has been all-consuming but we have been able to produce same-day results as we receive our specimens,” Cart concluded. “In today’s time, with everybody targeting 48 hours, the fact that we can essentially provide the results the day we receive them is still a feather in the Diatherix cap in comparison to all the other labs.”

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

27 seconds ago

Alabama STEM Council names interim executive director ahead of first meeting

Ed Castile, deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce and director of AIDT, on Monday announced that Lee Meadows, PhD has been named interim executive director of the recently established Alabama STEM Council as the state moves to advance science, technology, engineering, and math education and continue the work of Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success.

According to a release, Meadows in this role will work with the leadership of the Alabama STEM Council to help identify and solve barriers to STEM education and discover innovative solutions to meet the future demand of STEM related occupations in the Yellowhammer State.

With over thirty years of experience in science and education, Meadows’ career path has reportedly taken him from teaching chemistry and physics in high school to training and developing future STEM teachers. Helping educators integrate science and technology into their teaching quickly became a passion for Meadows and developing future STEM teachers turned into his personal mission.

Meadows most recently served as a professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) School of Education and prior to that was the co-director of UABTeach, where he helped nurture and train a new teaching force of highly qualified instructors in STEM subjects.

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Alabama is projected to need more than 850,000 STEM-related occupations by 2026, according to Alabama’s Roadmap to STEM Success.

“We are at a critical stage with STEM education in our state, and the Alabama STEM Council will be the leading authority to ensure we are poised for growth and success for many years to come,” stated Castile. “Having someone like Dr. Meadows who is passionate and dedicated to the growth and preparedness of future STEM leaders will set Alabama up for a successful future.”

Educator shortages and a disparity of STEM education available to all students regardless of location, economic status, gender or race provide obstacles to meeting the future demand for STEM-related careers.

In a statement, Meadows warned that “if we don’t grow our own STEM workforce we won’t have one.” He also noted that it is both his vision and passion to ensure all Alabama students see the value of STEM and have access to and availability of these educational resources.

This announcement comes ahead of the first meeting of the Alabama STEM Council on Wednesday. The meeting is open to the public via online access, which can be found here.

Meadows and the leadership of the Alabama Stem Council will reportedly begin with a priority of communicating to students, parents, teachers and other stakeholders the value of a STEM education and the doors it can open in the workforce.

Recognizing that there is not currently sufficient data in the state on what works and where the gaps in STEM education are, the Alabama Stem Council will also undertake a data tracking initiative to provide quantitative analysis to guide decisions and priorities. Identifying programs in Alabama that are already doing an exemplary job with STEM education that can be modeled and scaled up for the entire state will also be a top priority for the organization.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

31 mins ago

Zeigler: If ALDOT can build an $800M I-20/59-65 interchange in Birmingham with no toll, they can build an I-10 Mobile Bay bridge with no toll

As talk about construction for a new I-10 Mobile Bay bridge heats up, opponents of the infamous 2019 public-private partnership plan developed by the Alabama Department of Transportation are restating their opposition to any proposal that includes tolling.

State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who led an online campaign against the 2019 plan, is among those still insisting on no tolls.

During an appearance on FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show” in Mobile, Zeigler urged policymakers to look for other funding mechanisms and said if ALDOT could find a way to complete the $800 million upgrades to I-20/59 in downtown Birmingham, it could do so with the I-10 Mobile Bay project, as well.

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“Ever since we were able to block the toll plan, and I might say the very ridiculous toll plan, in August 2019, we knew there was a probability that somebody would come back with another plan for an I-10 bridge over Mobile Bay,” he said. “It’s just inevitable. Since then, actually, one loose group of leaders in Baldwin County came back with a proposal, but it didn’t get very far,  seven or eight months ago. Now we’ve been informed that there are people taking another look at it. Now, if they can put in a new bridge using the existing funds — the gas tax, the increase in the gas tax, the GOMESA money, the leftover BP funds, federal money, infrastructure grants — then let’s see the plan and let’s go forward without a toll.”

“You know, in Birmingham, they just built a new I-59, I-20, I-65 interchange costing about $800 million with no tolls,” Zeigler added. “They can build the I-10 bridge with no tolls, and we’re sticking to that.”

Zeigler acknowledged ALDOT director John Cooper and Gov. Kay Ivey’s handling of the 2019 project had resulted in an erosion of the public’s trust but said he was still open to a proposal, assuming it was a toll-free plan.

“ALDOT and its director, John Cooper, and Governor Ivey lost a lot of credibility on the Gulf Coast with the ridiculous plan,” Zeigler said. “The more we learned about that 2019 toll plan, the worse it got. The more facts we learned, the more we had to block the thing, and we did. I have a loss of trust in ALDOT and John Cooper, and many, many other people do, too. But preliminary work for a new bridge with existing funds can be done without their involvement, and the leadership needs to come locally, not from Montgomery. This idea that Montgomery knows what’s best for the Gulf Coast — that is not a good idea.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

46 mins ago

Delta Dental donates $100,000 to Alabama food banks on Giving Tuesday

The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation on Tuesday announced that it is giving a total of $100,000 to two food banks in Alabama.

The announcement comes on this year’s Giving Tuesday, a global campaign that encourages people and organizations to do good and pay it forward. The 2020 version of this annual day takes on increased significance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a release from the foundation noted.

The Delta Dental Community Care Foundation partners with local communities to increase access to care, support dental education and fund research that advances the oral health field. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of Delta Dental of California and its affiliated companies — including Delta Dental Insurance Company, which operates in the Yellowhammer State.

“As a result of the pandemic, food insecurity rates and reliance on food banks are skyrocketing like never before,” stated Kenzie Ferguson, vice president for foundation and corporate social responsibility for Delta Dental of California and its affiliates. “Fighting food insecurity is not only the right thing to do for our communities during these trying times, but it also aligns with our mission to promote oral health.”

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The foundation’s release explained that dental caries, or the disease that causes tooth decay, has been linked to food insecurity – a disruption in food intake or eating patterns due to a lack of resources – in numerous studies.

Alabama food banks receiving grants are as follows:

Community Food Bank of Central Alabama in Birmingham – $75,000
Montgomery Area Food Bank – $25,000

Overall foundation support in 2020 totals nearly $15 million nationwide, including nearly $350,000 to nonprofits in Alabama.

RELATED: Alabama Power employees raise money to help people in need

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Mazda Toyota Manufacturing to launch second wave of production hiring

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Mazda Toyota Manufacturing, the joint-venture automotive plant between Mazda Motor Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp., plans to resume the hiring of production positions at its Huntsville assembly facility on Monday.

The company will make its public announcement during a Facebook event on at 3:30pm Thursday.

“When you join the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing team you become a part of something bigger. Our production team member positions are career opportunities on a world-class team of highly-skilled, high-trained coworkers supported by leadership committed to the individual success of each employee on our team,” said Janette Hostettler, vice president of production at MTM.

“We looked forward to launching this next phase of hiring and encourage all interested in joining our team to tune into the Facebook Live event to learn more,” she said.

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MTM’s assembly facility, now under construction, is expected to open next year. Ultimately, the plant will employ up to 4,000 workers.

AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, is assisting MTM with the hiring process. The Thursday Facebook event will take place on AIDT’s page.

In August, when MTM announced an additional $830 million investment in the Alabama facility, the company said its employment had reached 600. Initial hiring of the production team began in January 2020.

“The partnership between the State of Alabama and Mazda Toyota Manufacturing has been great not only for our state but also our citizens,” said Ed Castile, head of AIDT and deputy secretary of Alabama Department of Commerce.

“We’re proud to support their hiring and training needs as they move into the next phase of their process and give more Alabamians an opportunity to jump start their manufacturing careers,” Castile added.

The new jobs are direct hire, full-time positions on the MTM production team. Starting wage for production team members is $17 an hour, with a top wage of $23 an hour plus shift premium.

MTM production team members are provided benefits on their first day of employment including paid time off, vehicle discount program, and medical, dental and vision coverage. Employees are also eligible to participate in MTM’s 401(k) with 6% employer match after 60 days.

Interested candidates may submit their application beginning Monday at the company’s website.

(Courtesy of Made In Alabama)

2 hours ago

UAB infectious disease expert says Alabama coronavirus situation at ‘scary inflection point’

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) infectious disease expert Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo held a virtual briefing on Tuesday during which she provided context for Alabama’s troublingly high rate of coronavirus spread and concerning number of hospitalized patients.

As Yellowhammer News reported on Monday, Alabama is experiencing a record number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, including at Marrazzo’s own UAB Hospital. New cases, meanwhile, are very near the highest average the state has experienced.

“This is not a surge… but a spike,” Marrazzo said of Alabama’s current increase in coronavirus numbers, repeatedly warning that the next few weeks could bring a “tidal wave” of new COVID-19 patients.

Marrazzo further relayed that Alabama is doing less testing than earlier in the pandemic, and she believes the current case numbers are an “underestimate” of reality.

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“We are not even in the post-Thanksgiving surge yet,” cautioned Marrazzo with regards to the even further increase in cases she and others expect to come about after many citizens traveled last week.

“This is a really, really scary inflection point,” Marrazzo said of Alabama’s current COVID-19 numbers, adding that hospitals may need to set up “ancillary care places” if the number of patients requiring hospitalization continues to go up.

“A lot depends on what happened over Thanksgiving weekend,” she said.

The doctor said one hypothetical situation keeping her up at night is a potential shortage of health care workers leading to some patients who urgently need care not being able to receive it in a timely manner.

“Are we going to have enough people to take care of what I thank may be a tidal wave of patients in the next month?” Marrazzo asked rhetorically.

She described that Mobile has currently exhausted its supply of ICU beds and said the statewide ICU bed situation is “not particularly optimistic.”

Marrazzo said Monday that she has gone to great lengths over the course of the pandemic to avoid being alarmist and offered some more positive news amid the rising cases.

“We have managed to improve the way we take care of people in the hospital,” she noted, further explaining that far fewer patients require being placed on ventilators now that doctors have more experience treating the virus.

“I think the vaccine news is very, very encouraging,” Marrazzo highlighted, mentioning specifically the medical company Moderna’s submission of its vaccine candidate to the FDA.

The expert also explained a complicating factor in the upcoming vaccine dispersal, for which the consensus is that health care workers will get the first doses, but the next round of people to get vaccinated is not wholly agreed upon.

Marrazzo described how priority could be made to give it to older citizens who are most at risk for serious complications if coming down with COVID-19. Another priority might be giving it to those in the community most likely to transmit the virus even if they are younger or less vulnerable.

With regards to the Pfizer vaccine, which was similar in its effectiveness to Moderna’s vaccine but must be stored and transported at much lower temperatures, Marrazzo said she was “very encouraged” by the company’s recent efforts to see if its vaccine was stable enough to be transported and stored more easily.

Near the end of her briefing, Marrazzo said “a huge amount of fatigue” is likely to blame for the numbers increasing even as the public is aware of the proper precautions – like mask wearing and social distancing – that must be taken.

The doctor said that going forward, “shaming is not the answer,” and those interested in stopping the virus must “appeal to people’s better nature.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.