URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – As colleges and universities are tasked with safely beginning classes, researchers at one school are ramping up testing. But they're putting away the nasal swab in exchange for a test they say can be scaled to perform thousands of tests a day with turnaround in just hours.
College junior Alliyah Rumbolt-Lemond is already back on campus and regularly testing for COVID-19.
“I know if you have in-person classes, you're going to be on campus, you have to get tested twice a week,” she says.
The college junior is one of the more than 51,000 students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign returning to school during the pandemic, posing a logistical challenge for administrators.
“It was very daunting,” said U of I chemistry professor Marty Burke.
He was part of the team of university researchers who developed a two-step saliva-based COVID-19 test to tackle the problem.
“We called this our ‘target, test and tell’ initiative, overall collectively described as a ‘Shield.’”
The Shield Initiative needed to be scalable, and unlike the four-step nasopharyngeal swab tests, not vulnerable to supply chain bottlenecks.
“It's a very powerful concept that if we can get to that fast, frequent testing, we really could get control of the situation,” said Burke.
A quick stop on route to class or work, integrated with local health care agencies, students receive results on an app within hours, not days.
“It takes about five to ten minutes to submit your saliva sample and then the results are typically back on your phone within three to six hours,” said Burke.
The university’s veterinary school diagnostic lab has been converted into a full-scale human COVID-19 testing facility. It’s capable of processing some 10 to 20,0000 saliva tests per day.
“I want to hang out with friends and do it the right way, like following CDC guidelines,” said Alliyah. “But I feel more comfortable saying ‘hey when's the last time you got tested?’”
A total of 20 testing sites with 40 stations are set up across campus. Users can even get exposure notifications if they’ve been in contact with someone who tests positive.
“If someone tests positive then same day that person is isolated,” said Burke. “Which we think is critical for ultimately the efficacy of the testing program.”
They’ve published a pre-print paper on their COVID-19 saliva test, which is undergoing peer review and are seeking FDA approval.
For students like Alliyah, it’s one-stop piece of mind.
“It makes you feel like I'm safer on campus because even though we only have to get tested twice a week you can get tested every day the testing site is open if you wanted to.”