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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Alumnus’ Key to Success in Fighting Infectious Diseases

By Tiffany Whitfield

Working on the front lines of infectious diseases is something Gene Olinger, an alumnus of Old Dominion University, has done for years.

He worked on the Ebola outbreak in 2015, and now he's focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Olinger is a science advisor for MRIGlobal, a non-profit based in Kansas City, Mo., and he specializes in Global Health and One Health programs in infectious diseases.

"I have been on the front lines before, testing samples in remote parts of the world in makeshift laboratories," Olinger said.

He has seen the virus up close and personal.

"In the laboratory we are working with the virus, but under very redundant, low-risk and safe conditions," he said.

Olinger graduated from ODU in 1993 with a major in environmental health science and a minor in biology.

"My minor in biology and specifically the early encouragement and training from Drs. Robert Ratzlaff (my first experience with antibodies) and Lloyd Wolfinbarger were the foundation for moving toward a Ph.D. in microbiology and Immunology," Olinger said. "Lessons learned from them about moving from theoretical to practical applications have been a key to any success I have had in science."

Studying COVID-19 is helping Olinger's team understand how to fight the virus.

"At MRIGlobal, we are also helping commercial companies validate their sample collection methods and diagnostic assays," Olinger said. He has been working with companies and government agencies to get assays, which are diagnostic tests, "validated and approved by the FDA."

MRIGlobalis part of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) efforts to develop countermeasures, antiviral and vaccines using in vitro and in vivomodels. Olinger and his team are deploying mobile laboratories across the United States that normally would have been overseas.

Olinger's work has taken him across continents to West Africa, India, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

"With most of our past outbreaks, the viruses were high morbidity and mortality," Olinger said, "and they impacted a region, but not the world."

During the Ebola outbreak, MRIGlobal helped develop the patient transport systems used to repatriate U.S. citizens called the containerized bio-containment system (CBCS). Olinger's work in the lab helped him "understand the disease using in vitro and in vivo models and medical imaging, to evaluate diagnostic testing and medical drugs and vaccines in Liberia, countermeasures in clinical trials and later the efforts to monitor the health of survivors." His efforts focused on developing vaccines and drugs for Ebola and Marburg viruses and were used in the outbreak for two missionaries infected with Ebola.

He credits ODU for his success.

"Nearly every day since I have left ODU, I have called upon my education, both formal and informal," he said. "Simply put, I was lucky to find the University, faculty and staff that could help me discover my inner passion and talents beyond taking classes and earning a degree."

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