How the COVID-19 pandemic has increased public knowledge of lab testing


While the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in accelerated innovation and increased access to testing for millions of patients throughout the world, it’s also led to the general public receiving a crash course in diagnostic testing and the critical role it plays in health care.

“The pandemic has highlighted the importance of the clinical laboratory and how our teams in laboratory medicine and pathology play an essential role in providing physicians and patients with the answers they need,” Matthew Binnicker, Ph.D., director of Mayo Clinic’s Division of Clinical Virology, says. “Another silver lining has been the increased awareness of the laboratory and pathology profession, as well as the importance of test results and their proper interpretation.”

As COVID-19 case counts spiked in early 2020, Mayo Clinic experts began providing regular and much sought-after education to help guide the public health response. These educational efforts occurred while clinical and laboratory staff were on the front lines providing diagnostics and lifesaving care for patients infected with the virus.

In addition to developing a COVID-19 resource center for clients around the world, Mayo Clinic Laboratories assembled a team of COVID-19 experts, including Drs. William Morrice II, Matt Binnicker, Paul Jannetto, John Mills, Robin Patel, Bobbi Pritt, Elitza Theel, and Joseph Yao. Throughout the pandemic, each one of these experts played a key role in sharing data-driven updates and education on COVID-19. They participated in countless local and national media events, sharing the latest information on the spread of COVID-19, testing, and emerging variants. They also advised businesses and colleges on the best ways to keep people safe. 

Their work to increase public awareness and knowledge of COVID-19 and testing for the virus was highlighted by:

  • 56 COVID-19 podcast episodes, featuring more than 25 expert guests. 
  • Regular placements in more than 20 of the nation’s top news publications, including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Bloomberg, CNN, ABC News, and NBC News.
  • More than 6,000 total article mentions.

Throughout the pandemic, their expertise — shared both in print and on screen — reached people in more than 75 countries. As a result, Dr. Binnicker believes the public has a much deeper understanding of laboratory testing, including when to test, how often to test, and which test to use — not only for COVID-19, but for many other viruses and diseases as well.  

“We observed an increasing interest in laboratory testing and how to interpret test results throughout the pandemic,” Dr. Binnicker says. “Common questions included, ‘How long will my antigen test stay positive?’ and ‘What does it mean if I test positive by PCR with a cycle threshold value of 35?’ These are questions that before the pandemic, most people would likely have never cared about or sought to understand. We should capitalize on this public interest by continuing to demonstrate the value of clinical laboratories and providing needed education on the role of laboratory medicine and pathology in caring for patients.”  

A new, proactive approach to pandemic preparedness  

Looking ahead, Dr. Binnicker says he’s hopeful the lessons learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will help the world prepare for the next potential outbreak. “I think I’m already starting to see positive momentum,” he says. “For example, when we experienced the monkeypox outbreak in 2022, Mayo Clinic was contacted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because they were interested in partnering with Mayo Clinic to expand testing capacity for monkeypox. That type of partnership wouldn’t have happened prior to COVID-19. So that is a concrete example of taking a proactive approach to minimize the spread of an emerging infectious disease.”

Dr. Binnicker has also observed proactive measures being taken as Mayo Clinic and others keep a watchful eye on the status of avian influenza. Since October 2020, a certain strain of avian influenza has caused the largest ever outbreak in poultry and wild birds. The virus has also caused outbreaks in certain mammals, raising alarms and some concern about the potential for future human-to-human transmission. “The CDC and FDA are reaching out and talking to clinical labs and diagnostic test manufacturers about developing new tests and expanding avian influenza testing capabilities. In addition, vaccine manufacturers are already starting to work on avian flu vaccines,” Dr. Binnicker says. “So, there’s more of a proactive mindset rather than a reactive response. And that’s what we need. We need to invest in preparing for potential outbreaks so that we can minimize transmission and save lives.”

Inside Mayo Clinic, Dr. Binnicker says he’s encouraged by the spirit of preparation and collaboration he’s seeing taking place among colleagues and key strategic partners to ensure testing capabilities are in place well before potential emerging infectious diseases become a problem. “We’re already talking with potential industry partners about ways we can build up testing capabilities for pathogens that might cause a problem in the future,” he says. “We’re creating a short list of infectious diseases we should be prepared for and working proactively to develop testing options. I’m seeing a mindset of preparation develop and a focus on preventing the next pandemic — and that should be the ultimate goal for all of us.”

Watch the video below for more on how operational and diagnostic innovations have helped Mayo Clinic Laboratories meet the world’s COVID-19 testing needs since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Cory Pedersen (@cpedersen)

Cory Pedersen

Cory Pedersen is a senior marketing specialist for Mayo Clinic Laboratories.