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The Power of a Test

How COVID-19 Is Diagnosed and Who Does It


Alison Kieffer
Genomic Education
The Jackson Laboratory
Emaly J. Piecuch
Genomic Education
The Jackson Laboratory
Christina Vallianatos
Genomic Education
The Jackson Laboratory
Sarah A. Wojiski
Genomic Education
The Jackson Laboratory


In this directed case study, students follow the story of “Marcus,” a recent college graduate who is working as a technician in a clinical laboratory to gain experience before applying to medical school. Marcus’ work duties suddenly shift when the COVID-19 pandemic hits his region to testing patient samples for the virus. Students investigate the process of COVID-19 diagnostic testing, from sample collection and processing to data analysis and the reporting of results. They then explore the molecular biology of nucleic acid purification, amplification of a target nucleic acid sequence, sequence detection and analysis, and ultimately, diagnosis. In the final section of the case, students shift their focus from technology to vocation as they research the many and varied career possibilities in a clinical laboratory and learn about the important role laboratory technicians play in the healthcare system and overall public health. Students should have prior knowledge of basic Mendelian genetic principles, DNA structure/function, and the concept of mutation. This case is appropriate for high school students in a biology, biotechnology, or allied health class.


  • Describe the process of sample preparation and processing used to diagnose infectious disease such as COVID-19.
  • Analyze data to determine the presence or absence of a COVID-19 infection in a patient sample.
  • Identify at least two factors that distinguish a clinical diagnostic laboratory from a research laboratory.
  • Discuss the training and credentials required to work as a laboratory technician in a clinical diagnostic laboratory.
  • Describe how laboratory technicians contribute to the healthcare system and what role they play in contributing to human health.


COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; coronavirus; virus; clinical laboratory; reverse transcription; PCR; quantitative PCR; data analysis; diagnostic test; allied health

Topical Areas


Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division


PDF, PowerPoint

Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Biology (General)  |   Biotechnology  |   Genetics / Heredity  |   Medicine (General)  |   Microbiology  |   Molecular Biology  |   Public Health  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Teaching notes are intended to help teachers select and adopt a case. They typically include a summary of the case, teaching objectives, information about the intended audience, details about how the case may be taught, and a list of references and resources.

Supplemental Materials

The optional PowerPoint presentation below includes figures from the case that the instructor can display in class.

  covid19_testing.pptx (~2.5 MB)

Answer Key

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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  • COVID-19 Testing Process
    A short video to highlight the process of COVID-19 testing and what happens behind the scenes. Running time: 1:15 min. Produced by The Jackson Laboratory, 2020.
  • Overview of qPCR
    A short animation that demonstrates the basics of qPCR. Running time: 2:44 min. Produced by New England Biolabs, 2016.