by Matt Markovich, KOMO News reporter
Thursday, January 21st 2021

SEATTLE – Seattle’s annual flu study was already nationally recognized as a leading research project for the spread of flu in a large metropolitan area.

In December of 2019, Dr. Helen Chu and her team of researchers with the University of Washington’s Brotman Baty Institute were spending the month actively recruiting people with flu-like symptoms to let their nose get swabbed for a specimen test.

Little did she know how valuable those swab samples would become for a different reason other than flu.

When the country’s first COVID-19 positive person was diagnosed in Everett one year ago, she and her team knew that those swabs could also be used in a test for COVID-19.

But that was not the study’s intent.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the appropriate thing for us to do as researchers is to ‘not’ take any action based on results from samples that were collected from people in the hospital and the clinic, but this was really the exception” she says looking back.

That exception would be a world-wide pandemic.


For her to retool the flu study and test for COVID-19, she .and the team would need an OK from federal regulators. The regulators would repeatedly tell the team, no. The team tested anyway and found positive samples for the virus, including a Renton man who did not travel to China.

“We were not allowed to go back and tell them they had a positive result for coronavirus,” she says. The team could only tell the research subjects if they had the flu, but not COVID-19.

The team need permission from the flu study participants to test for this new thing they never heard of COVID-19. And regulators had to permit her research lab to test for it.

“A lot of things should be different during a pandemic” she says.

While former-President Donald Trump called the virus “a hoax” propagated by the Democrats, Chu knew otherwise.

“A lot of the things that really slowed us down were the regulator pieces that were in place that prevented academic research labs from developing new lab tests and to be able to use them very quickly to diagnose in times of a pandemic”.

She believes research labs should be allowed to develop tests for future virus as they arise. Before 2009, that was the case, but now it’s up to corporate pharmaceutical giants to develop the tests.

“I think there needs to be much more flexibility and use of diagnostic testing in academic research labs” she says.

She’s hopeful that President Joe Biden’s administration will move faster in dealing with the pandemic. She’s been moving fast ever since she made a right turn from the flu study to researching how COVID-19 spreads.

“Yes, I’m very tired, I don’t think it’s going to become clear to me how exhausting this was until really things calm down – I’m hoping by this summer” she says. “At that point I’ll look back and I’ll thing how did that even happen.”

It did and it wasn’t a hoax.

Link to originally published article.