Alumni VS Coronavirus

Alumni Alert
Randy Rasmussen, PhD'98

SBS alumni Randy Rasmussen is the founder of BioFire Diagnostics which, along with ARUP and other Utah biotech companies, is making a difference in fighting the coronavirus.

Randy Rasmussen, PHD'98


After a new virus, COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization and then rapidly spread throughout the United States and other countries throughout the world, healthcare professionals and patients alike became vocal about the lack of testing kits available throughout the state and country.

In order to ensure that a greater percentage of the population would have accessibility to testing in the event that it was needed, the Food and Drug Administration announced a series of regulatory changes for laboratories and other diagnostic companies that gave already certified high-complexity laboratories (such as the ones found in hospitals or doctor’s offices) the ability to use their own tests to diagnose COVID-19, instead of the pre-authorized and distributed tests from the CDC.


As a result, several Utah biotech companies stepped up to the plate, including Biofire Diagnostics, and it’s sister company BioFire Defense, who created a specific biological test used to help healthcare providers throughout the country screen for the novel virus. Partnering with the Department of Defense on the development of the test, BioFire managed to create the test and have it certified for use in as little as two months, a lightspeed feat just when patients across the world needed one the most.


“Part of that [shortened time frame] was because the FDA was amazing. They were so good to work with. My team was sending emails to the FDA in the middle of the night and they were getting responses within minutes. It was super impressive. And so I think that’s why the development time was super-compressed,” says Wade Stevenson, senior vice president of BioFire Diagnostics when discussing the timeline of the BioFire test. “The Department of Defense [also] provided us with some end-targets that supported the product that they wanted and they gave us some funds to help get there. The development work was done by BioFire Defense and then BioFire Diagnostics does most of the manufacturing.”

The BioFire test wouldn’t have become a reality without their hundreds of employees coming in to work on the front lines every day. “You can’t do research and diagnostics from home,” laughs Stevenson when asked how the company is handling the process while adhering to the new social distancing guidelines. “You also can’t fit production lines into anyone’s home. So we, as a company, had to take a hard look at who can do their job at home or not. Governor Herbert did claim BioFire an essential business, however.”

Essential, indeed. Throughout the country, and the rest of the world, BioFire’s diagnostic capabilities are capable of saving the lives of thousands of potentially sick patients. In fact, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio specifically called out another BioFire diagnostic tool, the BioFire FilmArray Respiratory Panels, in his plan to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in New York City. “First thing [healthcare providers] will do, or among the first thing that they will do, is to test you with BioFire,” said de Blasio in a televised March 9th press conference.

De Blasio went on to discuss how providers would use the BioFire respiratory panels to first screen patients for twenty of the most common respiratory viruses to determine if it could be something other than COVID-19. Only after a patient tested negative with the BioFire respiratory test would they be tested for COVID-19, which could save hundreds of tests for those who are likely positive.

“We will be adding COVID-19 to the [respiratory label] but that will take a few more months of development,” says Stevenson. “[When that is added] that will change the game because you can rule out COVID-19 right along with the 20 other cases of respiratory infection.”

Though the FilmArray respiratory panels are already available for purchase, the initial batch of BioFire’s COVID-19 tests was sent to the Department of Defense in mid-March. The company expects to have the test available on a clinical basis around the third week of April.


Additionally, to further help meet the need of sick Utahns, ARUP Laboratories, a nonprofit enterprise of the University of Utah, was one of the first non-public health laboratories to offer COVID-19 testing when the pandemic first hit.


“ARUP began working with an outside manufacturing partner back in January.  As soon as the FDA issued their guidance in late February, ARUP was able to complete the validation of the test, and we began running tests on March 11,” says Brian Jackson, official spokesperson for ARUP Laboratories.

Between March 11-27th ARUP Laboratories revved up their testing capacity to run 2,400 tests per day. However, in order to preserve both testing capacity and rapid result delivery, ARUP is focusing initial testing efforts on Utah, and as of late March is not offering COVID-19 testing to hospitals outside of the state.

In an online press release, Sherrie Perkins, MD, PHD, and CEO at ARUP says that ARUP has faced challenges in sourcing the needed reagents and other supplies needed to run these tests at scale. And they aren’t the only ones, though BioFire manufactures their own reagents, they too are worried about meeting the demand for their products.

“Demand for the tests is going to be much greater than our ability to provide them,” says Stevenson. “We will very likely launch [the clinical COVID-19 test] under an allocation where we can only fill a [certain number of orders.]” And that’s a problem echoed throughout the entire diagnostic industry.


Though the lack of reagents is causing some uneasiness for healthcare providers and biotech companies throughout the country, there are a few other companies throughout Utah who are doing anything and everything they can to normalize the situation as much as possible.

On March 20th, Chris Gibson, CEO of the Salt Lake-based biotech powerhouse, Recursion Pharmaceuticals announced in a series of tweets that they would be partnering with a local “BioSafety Level 3” facility to do a series of experiments on “compounds and their efficacy against COVID-19.”

The Recursion team promised to share any discoveries with the scientific community and Gibson confirmed that the company would not be seeking profit on any discoveries that might be made. But it’s not just the biotech companies throughout Utah rallying around the doctors, nurses, and patients fighting on the front lines. In true tech-community spirit, the companies who make up the Silicon Slopes are working hard to do their part, as well.

In a town hall meeting just days after Gov. Herbert first put the guidelines in place in early March, Silicon Slopes members set up a community relief fund designed to help those in need. They plan to use their allocated funds throughout Utah to fund things like additional FDA approved tests for Utahns, the aquisition of medical supplies for healthcare and nonprofit workers, as well as additional public health and K-12 education efforts.

“One part of Silicon Slopes’ mission is to serve,” says Clint Betts, executive director for Silicon Slopes. “COVID-19 impacts all of us, so it’s important that we all play a role as we address this issue. By pooling our collective resources we’ll be able to come out of this in a lot better position than if we operated in our own siloes.”

Other tech companies in the area, such as Podium, are taking a more targeted approach to help restaurants who have been severely affected by the pandemic. In mid March, the Podium team released their “Text To Takeout” software that allows customers to directly text local restaurants to place, purchase, and pick up their orders. The software makes the process as safe as possible for all parties involved, which provides comfort to customers in a time of uncertainty.

But that’s not all. Other companies like Avii have offered their tax accounting software services to small businesses for free, Woodside Homes announced that they would be collecting PPE for healthcare workers, Nav is offering their expertise with small business finances to those in need, Walker Edison donated over 500 desks to students and workers now forced to work from home, Nearmap is offering their digital software to governments at no cost in order to help them plan COVID-19 relief, and Solutionreach came up with an innovative way to streamline the doctor/patient communication process. And this was all just within the last month.

“We recognize there is a lot of information circulating around COVID-19 and many healthcare organizations are left with no solution to reach out to their patients in a timely fashion with the proper information,” says Solutionreach CEO, Josh Weiner. “Allowing free use of our emergency messaging is just one small way we can continue to support the healthcare community during the COVID-19 situation.”

As the news continues to fill with depressing stories of grief, poverty, and a collapsing system, it’s so important to remember the companies, whether they be biotech or otherwise, who are putting everything into making this situation a little bit better for the rest of us. “There are so many stories of private companies that have approached us and offered their help,” says Betts. “Utah really is going to be a case study for how both the private and public sector can make a difference for the communities they serve.”


 - by Kelsie Foreman, in Utah Business Magazine, April 13, 2020


Masks for U

Spread the word, not the virus.

As faculty, staff and students slowly return to campus we are asking everyone in the community to take the utmost caution to avoid the spread of COVID-19. This includes wearing face coverings and maintaining appropriate physical distancing. The university will be providing face coverings to all faculty and staff to help make this possible.

Print & Mail Services will distribute the masks directly to departments. We hope to have the masks delivered in two weeks. Check with your department staff for availability.

The University is launching a campaign to remind people of the importance of wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing. The campaign features members of the campus community wearing appropriate face coverings with messaging about how to stay safe while on campus.

Departments will be able to place orders with Print & Mail Services for posters, A-frames, floor signs and other items with the campaign messaging. You can also get more information about staying safe on campus here.

We are all anxious for things to return to normal. However, that cannot happen until we stop the spread of COVID-19 on campus and in the greater Salt Lake City area.

We can do that by coming together and protecting ourselves and each other with just a few small changes to our normal routines.

Remember, we are all One U.

>> HOME <<

Students & COVID-19

COVID-19 Student Resources

This situation is unprecedented, and every day brings new information requiring our collective best efforts and flexibility. We know communication about campus updates is key. With that in mind, here is a collection of recent updates we’ve shared that you might have missed, as well as a summary of how to interact with most student services.

Science Podcasts

Science Podcasts

Hear directly from College of Science leadership and researchers.

>> Disturbance And Recovery

>> The Last Frontiers of the Forest

Coronavirus Research

Coronavirus Research

One of the biggest unknowns about the coronavirus is how changing seasons will affect its spread. Physicists from the University of Utah have received the university’s first COVID-19-related grant to tackle the question.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to Michael Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian of the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy to study the structure of the SARS-COV-2, the coronavirus strain at the center of the pandemic. The physicists will create individual synthetic coronavirus particles without a genome, making the virus incapable of infection or replication. The researchers will test how the structure of the coronavirus withstands changes in humidity and temperature, and under what conditions the virus falls apart.

The results will help public health officials understand how the virus behaves under various environmental conditions, including in the changing seasons and in microclimates such as air-conditioned offices.

“We’re making a faithful replica of the virus packaging that holds everything together. The idea is to figure out what makes this virus fall apart, what makes it tick, what makes it die,” said Vershinin, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and co-principal investigator of the grant. “This is not a vaccine. It’s won’t solve the crisis, but it will hopefully inform policy decisions going forward.”

The researchers searched the fully-sequenced SARS-COV-2 genome that was published in January and zeroed in on the genes responsible for the structural integrity of the virus. They are now synthesizing these genes in living cells and allowing their proteins to assemble into virus particles.

“Coronavirus spreads similarly to the influenza virus—as small mucus droplets suspended in the air. The predominate idea is that viruses lose infectivity because the particles lose structural integrity,” said Saffarian. “The physics of how the droplets evolve in different temperature and humidity conditions affect how infectious it is.”

The RAPID funding program allows NSF to quickly review proposals in response to research on urgent issues, such as global pandemics.

“This application of sophisticated physics instruments and methods to understand how the 2019 coronavirus will behave as the weather changes is a clear example of how our investment in basic research years later prepares us for a response to a crisis that impacts not only our society, but also the whole world,” said Krastan Blagoev, program director in NSF’s Division of Physics.


At the onset of the coronavirus, Vershinin and Saffarian dove deep into the scientific literature to learn as much as possible about corona and related viruses, such as influenza. They realized that many studies looked at the spread of influenza on an epidemiological level. There are fewer answers about how climate and specific conditions effect a single virus particle. Both researchers bring decades of experience working in the nanoscale. Vershinin lab’s specialty is using optical tweezers, a tool that enables him to probe individual molecules just a few atoms across.

“It’s often compared with the tractor beam from ‘Star Trek.’ You just use light to reach in and apply force to manipulate things,” Vershinin said.

Saffarian’s lab focuses on viruses that, like coronavirus, contain RNA strands. His lab utilizes many tools to track the behavior of individual virus particles, including HIV.

The researchers are members of the Center for Cell and Genome Sciences in the College of Science, where scientists who apply physics, chemistry and biology work alongside each other and can form collaborations rapidly—a key advantage in the fight against the virus.

“You don’t just gain the insight that you want by looking at the virus on a large scale. Looking at a single virus particle is the key to being able to tease out what’s going on,” Vershinin said. “Modern biology and biophysics allows us to ask these questions in a way we never could have before.”

Funding for this research was provided by NSF under award number PHY-2026657 for nearly $200,000.


by Lisa Potter

>> @theU - 03/18/2020



Essential Research

Essential Research Activities

As of March 23, 2020, only research activities that have been determined to be essential by the college dean or center/institute director, in consultation with the VPR, can be conducted on campus. Essential research activities can only be carried out by personnel that are classified as mandatory with Human Resources. These personnel, as well as their time on campus, should be kept to a minimum and laboratories and facilities must have detailed protocols in place to maintain physical distance and to protect the health and safety of research personnel and the general public. No other personnel or visitors are permitted in research buildings, laboratories, or facilities while these restrictions are in effect.

Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers should not be classified as mandatory unless their work is critical to essential research. See the Graduate School guidance for further details. We ask PIs and mentors to be extremely judicious in classifying research personnel as mandatory and to keep the health and safety of our research community and the public as their foremost consideration.

Currently, all research activities conducted by University of Utah personnel on campus, at other university properties, or at other field or remote research facilities must fall into one of the following categories:

  • Priority clinical and pre-clinical research
  • Animal care or priority animal research
  • Maintenance of other live organisms (e.g. plants, fungi, non-vertebrates) and cell cultures
  • Maintenance of equipment or experimental infrastructure that will be damaged by interruptions
  • Research functions necessary for health and safety
  • Other urgent research activities if approved by the VPR

Individual approvals of other urgent research activities must be sent to the college dean or institute/center director, who will then forward the request to the VPR if approved at the college/institute/center level.

Keep up to date on COVID-19 related Research information at

If you have questions or concerns please contact the VPR office at



Science VS Virus

Utah science and the Coronavirus

As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, spreads across the globe, University of Utah scientists are stepping up to the plate to address the numerous unanswered questions that are emerging in its wake. Sound science that informs how the novel virus came to be, how it behaves and how it spreads will be invaluable for developing and implementing strategies to defeat it.

Within a few short weeks, more than a dozen new research studies have popped up across the U—from physics to biochemistry to bioengineering—and many more are in the works.

The U’s Immunology, Inflammation, and Infectious Disease Initiative quickly assembled support for these new efforts with a virtual meeting that attracted 207 participants and funding for COVID-19 research. While projects at the U vary in approach, they share a common goal: to create a brighter future for all of us. We describe five of them here.

Do changes in temperature and humidity affect the new coronavirus?

One of the biggest unknowns about the coronavirus is how changing seasons will affect its spread. Researchers from the Department of Physics & Astronomy received grant funding to answer this question. The physicists will create individual synthetic coronavirus particles without a genome, making the virus incapable of infection or replication. The researchers will test how the structure of the coronavirus withstands changes in humidity and temperature, and under what conditions the virus falls apart.

Lead scientists: Michael Vershinin and Saveez Saffarian, Physics & Astronomy

A drug to block infection

One thing we really need is a medicine that prevents or treats COVID-19. Biochemists at U of U Health are working toward that goal by repurposing a strategy they developed against another infectious disease, HIV. Their trick is to build mirror-images of pieces of proteins, called D-peptides. These little chemicals are designed to jam the infection process and because D-peptides aren’t found in nature, they aren’t degraded by the body. This could mean that one dose could last a long time, simplifying treatment and lowering cost. Getting new drugs approved can be a lengthy process so this approach may not help with the current outbreak. That’s why the scientists are simultaneously creating a broad inhibitor that could be effective against other new coronaviruses.

Lead scientists: Debra EckertChristopher HillMichael, Kay, Biochemistry

Origins of the new coronavirus

Bats are rife with coronaviruses, most of which are likely harmless to people. Scientists have found that these viruses can exchange pieces of genetic information with each other, giving rise to viruses that cause outbreaks in humans. To find the role these exchanges may have played in the origin of SARS-CoV-2, researchers in the Department of Human Genetics are scouring the virus’ genome to find regions that have changed recently, and are determining whether genetic exchange could have empowered the virus to infect us and evade our immune defenses. Understanding how docile viruses turn deadly could one day inspire new ideas to stop them.

Lead scientists: Stephen Goldstein, Nels Elde, Human Genetics

Who should be tested for covid-19?

We are living the reality that there is a limited number of COVID-19 tests, due to international shortages of supplies to make them. In this situation, it is best to reserve testing for individuals who are most at-risk for having the disease and developing severe symptoms. But who are they? Using mathematical models of disease spread, and clinical data from those who have already been tested, infectious disease physicians are developing an online calculator. Plug in medical data and out comes a score indicating the likelihood that the patient will test positive. If the score is high, she should be tested. If the score is low, she can monitor symptoms at home (calling in if they change) potentially preserving a precious test.

Lead scientist: Daniel Leung, Infectious Disease

Planning for a better future.

If we could see that the future looks dire, we might be able to come up with ways to change it. Epidemiologists are creating models based on what is known about transmission of the new coronavirus from person-to-person and combining it with census data. The result? An indication of when the disease might enter different parts of the country and expected number of cases. With this virtual world, scientists can then determine how things might change when people take precautions like social distancing. The scientists are also developing hospital-specific scenarios to anticipate needs for beds, masks, ventilators and other precious items in limited supply. With these data, the hope is to be able to shift the future from ominous to optimistic.

Lead scientist: Lindsay Keegan, Epidemiology